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Missouri Legislature OK’s measure streamlining rape kit testing process

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri House OK’d legislation from the other side of the building that includes a bevy of protections for sexual assault victims, including a streamlined process for testing rape kits. 

The bill now heads to the governor for final approval. 

SB 569, championed by Sen. Andrew Koenig, is derived from an audit from the Missouri Attorney General last year which found more than 6,000 untested sexual assault kits throughout the state. The bill aims to streamline the testing process and make it easier for victims to track the kits’ statuses.

“Survivors of sexual assault will no longer have to suffer in silence,” Koenig told The Missouri Times. “Survivors deserve justice and this legislation gives them the resources and support needed to find closure and finally resolve their case.” 

“Today, the voices of rape victims across Missouri have been heard loud and clear,” said Rep. Hannah Kelly, the bill handler in the House. “Because of the leadership of Sen. Koenig and the General Assembly, those who perpetrated these evil crimes will finally be brought to justice.”

Rep. Hannah Kelly
State Rep. Hannah Kelly (TIM BOMMEL/HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS).

The bill mandates law enforcement agencies to retain evidentiary collection kits for 30 years that have not been adjudicated. And except for in the cases of minors, unreported kits should be retained for at least five years.

“A big thanks to legislators in Jefferson City for taking action and advancing the work I did on the Debbie Smith Act in Congress to serve and protect survivors,” U.S. Congresswoman Ann Wagner told The Missouri Times. “This vital legislation will help Missouri end the backlog on testing rape kits and make sure victims can access the services they need. I re-authorized the Debbie Smith Act in Congress to help fund local efforts that provide justice for survivors. We must continue working together to protect survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence and hold accountable the perpetrators who have escaped punishment.”

In the upper chamber, the bill grew to include the “Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights,” which establishes certain protections for victims, including the right to consult with a counselor or support person during the tedious medical or legal process that comes with reporting such crimes. Championed by GOP Sen. David Sater, the measure also protects a victim from having to pay for a rape kit and ensures communications between a counselor and survivor are privileged. 

Sen. Jill Schupp also attached an amendment that would increase access to rape kits in the first place — an effort she’s led for more than a year. The measure creates a statewide telehealth network to mentor, train, and provide assistance to medical providers who are conducting forensic examinations, meaning hospitals wouldn’t necessarily have to be staffed with full-time Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) around the clock. 

A telehealth system would alleviate a possible additional burden placed on victims who seek treatment after an assault. Now, if a hospital cannot provide a rape kit, a victim might either forgo the examination or have to travel long distances, an experience that could be retraumatizing or contaminate evidence, Schupp has said. 

“Today, with a House vote of 150-3, a package of legislation that will help bring justice for survivors of sexual assault was passed in bi-partisan fashion. My portion of the bill, the Justice for Survivors Act, will help ensure survivors get the compassionate and proper forensic exam they need under the guidance of trained professionals. This important policy will help law enforcement catch violent predators,” Schupp said Tuesday. “I am grateful that the thoughtful and committed bill handler and legislators on both sides of the aisle who stood in support of the bill’s passage.”

The House truly agreed to and finally passed the bill 150-3 without any changes. It received bipartisan support from the House floor. 

“Sometimes legislation needs to be passed clean and this is one of those times,” GOP Rep. Sheila Solon said. “I’m thankful we are able to bring this to the floor.”

“This bill is all about treating people with the respect and dignity they deserve no matter where they show up as a victim of a crime,” Democratic Rep. Tracy McCreery said. 

Responding to previous floor comments, McCreery said: “Just because someone doesn’t choose to prosecute a rape or sexual assault, that does not mean a crime did not occur. Rape and sexual assault happens in every corner of our state.”

Republican Reps. Mike Moon, Tom Hurst, and Jeff Pogue were the three no votes.

Moon said he wasn’t opposed to the bill itself or any of its provisions but felt it had grown outside of its “original purpose.” His vote Tuesday gave him “heartburn,” he said.

“I feel for the victims, but I swore an oath to support the Constitution, and how do I act otherwise? It appears there’s little attention paid to the oath we took,” Moon told The Missouri Times.

The bill, which passed unanimously in the Senate, now heads to the governor. 

“This isn’t just any piece of legislation. This is personal and it was clear from the House floor debate,” Colleen Coble, CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (MCADSV), said in a statement to The Missouri Times.

Jennifer Carter Dochler, the MCADSV public policy director, added: “During such an unusual time, it is powerful to have such bipartisan support for a bill that will make a lasting difference for survivors of sexual assault.”

Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has continued to prioritize tackling the backlog of rape kits throughout the state. 

This story has been updated.