Our law firm represents survivors of sexual abuse, and when the opportunity arises, we also support legislation that provides victims of sexual violence with additional avenues to achieve justice.
On Wednesday, March 25, 2015, attorney Jacqueline Swanson was proud to sit next to and support our client, Brenda Tracy – a survivor of a gang rape perpetrated by two Oregon State University football players and two other young men sixteen years ago – when they gave testimony on in front of the Oregon Senate and House Committees on Judiciary in support of two proposed bills, SB 563 and HB 3476.
Why are these two bills needed? The answer is simple: to protect victims of sexual assault.
Senate Bill 563 and the Rape Kit Investigative Work Group
Currently, there is an alarming backlog of untested and unexamined rape kits across the country. There is no federal law mandating tracking and reporting of backlogged rape kits, and although a handful of jurisdictions have enacted legislation to address the issue, Oregon is one of the many states that does not require law enforcement agencies within the state to track or count existing kits. Because of this, obtaining accurate figures of the total numbers of untested sexual assault kits is difficult. However, the federal government estimates that there are approximately 500,000 untested rape kits sitting in police storage rooms across the country.
Sexual Assault Medical Forensic Examinations – or “rape kits” – are invasive, traumatic and uncomfortable, and may take anywhere from four to eight hours to complete. The rape kit is the evidentiary tool used by law enforcement agencies to identify and collect forensic evidence for use in criminal prosecution. The kit contains physical and documentary evidence of the forensic medical examination, including demographic information, incident reports, evaluations, health history, injury logs, photographs, specimens of the victim’s bodily tissues, blood, urine, fingernail scrapings, DNA, hair and clothing. After the rape kit is conducted, the kit is provided to law enforcement for preservation and eventual submission to an accredited public or private crime lab for testing.
Victims who consent to these exams do so under the assumption that his or her rape kit – once collected and given to law enforcement – will be automatically tested and used by officials to investigate their case and help convict the person who harmed them. Frequently, however, law enforcement agencies fail to process or test these kits, and often destroy the rape kit before the criminal and/or civil statute of limitations has run. Further, this destruction and failure to test occurs without any notice to the victim, or opportunity for the victim to intervene.
Such is what happened to Brenda Tracy. After Ms. Tracy was raped by four men in Corvallis, Oregon, she reported the abuse and underwent a lengthy and invasive rape kit examination. Evidence was collected and submitted to law enforcement for testing in order to aid the district attorney in bringing charges against the men. However, due to a number of reasons, the District Attorney did not immediately charge the men, and after a mere two years – four years before the expiration of the criminal statute of limitation – law enforcement destroyed her rape kit.
Senate Bill 563 would seek to change this. The bill would require various law enforcement agencies (i.e., state police, city, county, municipal or local police, sheriff’s offices, etc) in Oregon to submit a report to the Attorney General detailing the number of untested and destroyed Sexual Assault Forensic Exam kits (i.e., “rape kits”), the date the untested/destroyed kit was collected, and the reasons for the backlog. In addition, through our and Brenda’s efforts, a line one amendment was provided that would provide for victim notification prior to the destruction of rape kit evidence.
The Senate Committee on Judiciary heard Ms. Swanson’s and Ms. Tracy’s testimony on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. At the hearing, the Committee decided that a work group would be appointed to better identify the scope of the problem in Oregon, provide proposed solutions, and generally prepare to develop policies, procedures and legislation best aimed at remedying this issue.
Due to her extensive knowledge and background in sexual assault victim advocacy, during the hearing the Committee Chair appointed Ms. Swanson to the work group. Ms. Swanson was glad to accept the offer to participate as a member of the official work group concern legislative reform aimed at addressing the rape kit backlog, ensuring transparency in law enforcement agencies’ collection, storage and processing of rape kits, and enforcing the constitutional rights of crime victims in Oregon.
Everyone at OC&C is proud of both Ms. Swanson and Ms. Tracy, and we are excited to have one of our attorneys working on such an incredibly important issue.
House Bill 3476 and Victim Advocate Privilege
The second proposed bill, House Bill 3476, would also assist victims of sexual abuse, albeit in a different way. Lawmakers were inspired to draft HB 3476 following the lawsuit filed by a University of Oregon victim who was raped by three UO basketball players; before the victim filed suit, the University accessed her therapy records to prepare the litigation defense. Although the University’s actions were clearly an invasion of privacy, it was – as attorney Jacqueline Swanson explained in a prior blog post – likely legal.
The bill would establish a privilege “in civil, criminal, administrative and school proceedings for certain communications between persons seeking services related to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking and victim services programs and advocates.” Thus, the bill seeks to provide victims seeking support services for sexual assault, domestic violence, or stalking the opportunity to have the communications with a therapist, advocate, or counselor privileged and confidential.
We here at OC&C and Ms. Brenda Tracy support HB 3476. Ms. Tracy gave testimony in support of the bill on Wednesday, March 15, 2015, and she also spoke at a rally before the Oregon State Capitol building in support of the bill alongside Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.
Next week, we and Ms. Tracy plan to testify in support of Senate Bill 8 and House Bill 2317, which would extend the statute of limitations in Oregon. The bills will be heard before the legislative committee on April 1, 2015.
If you have experienced sexual abuse and would like to speak to someone confidentially, or if you are interested in learning more about our legislative advocacy and proposed reform in support of survivors of sexual abuse, please call us at 1-888-407-0224 or use our confidential online form.