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Rights for sexual assault victims: GOP senator champions bill to add protections in law

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri could establish a litany of protections, including the right to a counselor, in law for victims of sexual violence this year. 

Championed by Republican state Sen. David Sater, SB 812 would establish a bevy of protections for sexual assault 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. It would protect a victim from having to pay for a rape kit and ensure communications between a counselor and survivor are privileged. 

“This is happening every day. Women and men are being assaulted every day, and I want to make sure that they have the security that they can come forth and be treated with dignity at the hospital for a mental and physical examination and not feel like they’re going to be persecuted,” Sater told The Missouri Times in an interview. 

“A lot of [individuals] who have been sexually abused are afraid,” Sater continued. “We need to take away the stigma of what’s going on here, and we need to make sure the women and men who are assaulted have certain rights. These people face a very traumatic situation, and sometimes you don’t use the right judgment to make the right decisions in this emotional state. We want to make sure there’s a counselor of some sort who’s assisting a victim in making the decisions and letting him or her know what their rights are.” 

As it stands now, the “Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights” would establish communications between a counselor and victim are confidential and privileged — a provision that could give more individuals the confidence to come forward, Sater said. 

“Some of these people may have been under the influence [of alcohol or drugs] which may have been a misdemeanor. We don’t want law enforcement to use that against them,” Sater said. “We want these people to be able to come forward. Sexual assault is a very serious matter.”

Additionally, a victim would be able to have an attorney present during all stages of the medical process, investigation, and other interactions during the process, according to the bill. 

“With everything that’s happened the past few years in Missouri to build a better infrastructure to address sexual assault, this would be another important piece clearly establishing in law what are rights for sexual assault survivors as they’re navigating the complex decisions they have to make,” Jennifer Carter Dochler, the public policy director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, told The Missouri Times. 

Implementing “bill of rights” legislation for sexual assault victims in every state in the U.S. has been a major campaign by Rise, a national nonprofit founded in 2014. Sater, a pharmacist by trade, said he was approached by activists and asked to carry this bill because of his work in the health care industry. 

SB 812 also establishes a task force to review the results of the bill — as well as national statistics and practices — and make recommendations. It would have to submit a full report by the end of 2021. 

The task force would be comprised of two members of the Senate, two members of the House, Department of Health and Human Services director or designee, private citizen appointed by the governor, sexual assault victims’ rights group representative appointed by the governor, rape crisis center representative appointed by the governor, Missouri State Highway Patrol superintendent or designee, Missouri State Highway Patrol crime lab director or designee, law enforcement officer appointed by the governor, and an attorney appointed by the governor. 

Is 2020 the year for survivor protection legislation?

This could be “just the year” to address adding protections for sexual assault and rape survivors in Missouri, according to Sater. Aside from his “bill of rights” legislation, two other senators are moving bills in the upper chamber to aid victims. 

Right off the bat this session, Republican state Sen. Andrew Koenig filed legislation that would streamline the process of testing rape kits and make it easier for victims to track the status. This bill largely mirrors recommendations put forth by the state’s attorney general following an audit of the more than 6,000 untested kits found in Missouri. 

And Sen. Jill Schupp, a Democrat, is once again championing legislation that would create a statewide telehealth system for forensic examinations of sexual assault victims. Schupp pushed a similar effort last year and spent the interim conducting more research. 

Issues with rape kits — from access to them to law enforcement actually testing them — is a nationwide problem that isn’t just confined to Missouri. According to the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN), only about 17 to 20 percent of hospitals in the country are equipped to do the forensic examination — and the problem is worse in rural communities.

Sater said he has “confidence” in his bill’s ability to move through the General Assembly. And he teased a potential collaboration with the other two senators’ legislation: “I have been known to have several omnibus bills,” he said with a chuckle. 

The bill was heard in the Senate Seniors, Families, and Children Committee earlier this week.