Invisible Victims: The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act Fails to Protect Child Sex Abuse SurvivorsOn September 6, 2016, the United States House of Representatives unanimously passed H.R. 5571, the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act. In May, the Senate unanimously passed an almost identical bill (S. 2566). Once some technical differences between the bills are reconciled, the legislation, which is being called the survivors’ bill of rights, will undoubtedly be signed into law by President Obama.
The new law will require that rape kits be preserved without any cost to the victim until the particular state’s statute of limitations for the crime at issue expires, that survivors be given access to their rape kits and any test results from the kits, and that survivors be notified at least 60 days before their kits are scheduled to be destroyed by law enforcement. The legislation also establishes a working group “to develop, coordinate, and disseminate best practices regarding the care and treatment of sexual assault survivors and the preservation of forensic evidence.” (Identical language in both bills.) The sponsor of the Senate bill, Sen. Jeanne Sheehan, stated that the goal of the legislation “is to change the culture around how sexual assault survivors are treated as they pursue justice.” And the House bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Zoe Lofgen, noted that the passage of the Act “means we are much closer to ensuring victims of sexual assault have meaningful access to justice.”
Notwithstanding the legislators’ lofty language and the broadly-stated goals of the two bills, the legislation does nothing to protect the rights of adult survivors of child sexual abuse. The texts of the bills do not contain a single reference to child victims of sexual assaults. In contrast to adult rape cases, cases reported by adults who were victimized as children involve events that occurred years or even decades before the crimes were reported to authorities. Therefore, the bills’ provisions relating to the preservation of, and access to, rape kits are not applicable to adult survivor cases. Furthermore, the language relating to the establishment of the working group indicates that the group’s focus will be on the preservation of forensic evidence in rape cases.
To be sure, the legislation protecting certain rights of sexual assault survivors is an important advance and hopefully will lead to further reforms of the legal system’s handling of such cases. But child sex abuse survivors also deserve a “bill of rights.” Regrettably, the federal government has treated this group of survivors as if they are invisible. In recent times, the government has addressed sexual assaults of adults in the military and on college campuses. But no time or attention has been devoted to child sex abuse survivors – even though children are sexually victimized at a much higher rate than adults. Although nearly 70% of all reported sexual assaults, including 44% of rapes, occur to children under 18 years of age, the legal system’s response to this category of cases has been inadequate, at best. Arrests are made in only 29% of child sex abuse cases. Official data on rates of prosecution and conviction in adult survivor cases does not appear to exist or is inaccessible to the public.
Because adult survivor cases typically lack physical evidence and are tantamount to “cold cases,” police and prosecutors often perceive such cases as too difficult to prove. As a result, the justice system contains an inherent bias against survivor cases. Significant and urgent reforms are needed to develop a specialized, trauma-informed approach to the investigation, prosecution, and litigation of adult survivor cases. As in cases involving adult victims of sexual assaults, the government needs to “develop, coordinate, and disseminate best practices regarding the care and treatment” of child sex abuse survivors.
Almost a year ago, a number of different advocacy groups and organizations formed the Coalition for a National Commission on Child Sex Abuse. (The organization to which I am legal counsel is a member of the Coalition.) To date, the government has failed to take any action in response to the Coalition’s advocacy for the formation of a Commission to study and recommend actions to prevent child sex abuse, to support the treatment of survivors, and to protect and preserve survivors’ legal rights. It is time for the federal government to recognize the plight of child sex abuse survivors. Like their adult survivor counterparts, child victims of sexual assaults are entitled to respect, dignity, and equal treatment under the law. Justice demands no less.
Neil Jaffee, Legal Counsel
Vertigo Charitable Foundation, LLC