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Amanda Nguyen: "Millions of survivors are struggling to navigate the legal labyrinths that exist in every state."

On the rise

“Navigating the broken system was worse than the rape itself”

By Neesha Arter on February 4, 2016

In late February, a Sexual Assault Survivor Bill of Rights will be introduced to the U.S. Senate. Twenty-four-year-old Amanda Nguyen, founder of the organization Rise, advocates for legal protections for sexual assault survivors and recently helped draft the legislation, after confronting significant obstacles as she worked to prevent her rape kit from being destroyed in Massachusetts. This Harvard alum, Deputy White House Liaison at the State Department and astronaut in training is more than just a rape survivor fighting for change.

Despite the state’s 15-year statute of limitations for rape, untested rape kits are only kept for up to six months, so twice a year Nguyen is reminded of her traumatic experience when she is required to request an extension. “The six-month rule makes me live my life by date of rape,” Nguyen told Broadly, in a recent interview. After meeting additional survivors with similar stories, it became clear to her that the current legal protections were insufficient and in complete disarray.

Nguyen worked with Congress members Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ann Wagner to engender change and introduce House Resolution 230. H.R. 230, introduced last year, has 51 co-sponsors from both parties, including Representatives Peter King, Cynthia Lummis, and Gwen Moore.

New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen is championing this legislation on the Senate side. Shaheen told Women in the World: “Without a clear set of rights articulated in the law, it’s difficult for even the best law enforcement professionals to ensure that survivors receive fair, effective, consistent treatment, particularly across counties and states. With so much at stake, and with justice too often denied to survivors, we must do better.”

Shaheen, who is hoping for broad bipartisan support for the bill of rights, believes that by drawing on best practices from around the nation and creating a model at the federal level, similar actions will follow in all 50 states. “Amanda and other brave survivors have put these issues on the nation’s agenda, and now it’s time for Congress to reform the system,” Shaheen added.

Nguyen was interviewed by Women In The World about the bill, its challenges and the hopeful outcome.

Women In The World: Tell me about Rise and why you created this organization.

Amanda Nguyen: Rise is a national nonprofit that fights for sexual violence survivors’ civil rights. We are a coalition of millennials, experts and organizers from diverse backgrounds – professionally, socially, and economically. Rise was created from my personal experience with the criminal justice system and my belief that we can do better. I created Rise because the criminal justice system is broken and I see a way we can begin to fix it. This movement is grounded in the belief that the voices of ordinary citizens matter – no matter the background, no matter the age. That’s why it is named Rise – to remind us that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can rise up and change the world.

WITW: Where did you turn for information on understanding your rights as a survivor?

AN: It was difficult to find information. I turned to whatever resources I could find, which included endless hours on Google, and talking to friends, rape crisis centers, legal advocacy centers, the police, and professors.

WITW: What was the hardest part about navigating this situation?

AN: The hardest part was realizing that the system meant to protect and deliver justice is broken. The system tells survivors to go to authorities to get help. I did that, but navigating the broken system was worse than the rape itself. From ludicrous policies, such as destroying rape kits after only 6 months, to not providing information about confusing operating procedures, the deck is stacked so high against survivors. I want to change that. This bill will change that.

WITW: Is your experience specific to Massachusetts?

AN: My experience, despite being regulated by specific and complicated state and local regulations, is not unique. Millions of survivors are struggling to navigate the legal labyrinths that exist in every state.

WITW: What do sexual assault survivor rights look like in other states?

AN: No state has comprehensive civil rights protections for survivors. Two sexual assault survivors shouldn’t have two completely different sets of rights, just because they are in two different states. For example, some survivors have reported having to pay for their rape kit and associated medical treatments, resulting in creditors calling survivors at their home or place of work, often retraumatizing them. Additionally, although therapist-patient privilege is universal, only some states have adopted some form of sexual assault counselor-survivor privilege in their evidence code. If a survivor chooses not to report an assault to the police or refuses to go to trial, no state guarantees all of her legal rights as a crime victim will be protected. This means that all states essentially force survivors to do something against their will, after they have already been assaulted against their will.

Nyugen meets with Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. (Photo courtesy of Rise)
Nguyen meets with Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. (Photo courtesy of Rise)

WITW: Why do we need federal legislation vs. state solutions?

AN: Rise is simultaneously fighting for a comprehensive bill of rights for sexual assault survivors at both the federal and state levels. Legislation is needed at each level in order to reform both the federal and the state criminal justice systems because Article I of the Constitution limits the ways in which the federal government can change criminal justice practices. For example, the Constitution does not permit the U.S. Congress to tell local law enforcement how to do their job, but state law can. In order to fill in the existing gaps of civil rights, we are working on both a federal and state level to implement these policies.

WITW: How did the idea to draft a piece of legislation about this come about?

AN: My story with a broken system is not mine alone. I remember walking into the waiting room of a crisis center and seeing so many other survivors there. I have listened to the struggles of survivors from different communities across America. Through data-driven, comparative analysis of state laws and policies, as well as meeting these survivors, it was made clear that there is a huge, but fixable, problem. My goal is simple and clear: comprehensive civil rights for survivors. Take the rights that already work in some states and put the best practices together so that everyone has equal rights under the law.

WITW: What does the bill seek to change in the current legal system?

AN: Although Americans generally agree that sexual assault is a terrible thing, they are often misinformed about the definition and prevalence of sexual assault in our country. There are over 25 million sexual assault survivors in America who need our government to protect their basic civil rights. But in our current system, access to justice depends on geography. Even the simple right to know one’s legal rights as a survivor of sexual assault depends heavily upon geography.

Rise created the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights to ensure the basic rights of survivors of sexual assault, provide equal protection of survivors in each state, respect survivors’ personal autonomy and bodily integrity, and reaffirm the right of all survivors to notice, efficiency, and fairness. This bill will help ensure that all survivors can receive justice.

WITW: How many people could be helped by this legislation?

AN: The CDC estimates there are at least 25 million rape survivors in the US. That’s almost equivalent to the population of Texas. Critically, this legislation helps all that are involved with the process, including the accused and law enforcement officers, because DNA evidence can often exonerate the accused and destroying evidence before statute of limitations hurts everyone. Standard operating procedures also help law enforcement officers by giving them clear guidelines, and preventing misinformation and confusion that can lead to the mishandling of cases.

WITW: What has been the reaction to the Massachusetts bill?

AN: The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.  My team and I are grateful to have received tremendous support from local leaders, including former Attorney General Martha Coakley, Boston Councilor Ayanna Pressley, Boston Council President Michelle Wu, and State Representative Farley Bouvier, who is the lead sponsor of the bill.  She has been joined by 39 co-sponsors to support this bill, including Rep. Paul Tucker, who was a police chief and law enforcement officer for over 30 years before joining the Massachusetts State House.

Nguyen, founder of Rise, meets with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo courtesy of Rise)
Nguyen meets with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo courtesy of Rise)

WITW: Tell me about the journey to turn this into a federal piece of legislation.

AN: It started from my personal experience of trying to navigate the justice system. The greatest injustice I have ever faced was not the act of rape itself, but rather, the subsequent denial of my rights. I grew up believing that America is special because it recognizes universal, inalienable rights. As a survivor, I learned that not all are equal in the eyes of the law.

WITW: Have you received any pushback on the bill?

AN: We’ve worked extensively with people from all sides of the aisle to make sure that this bill addresses their critical voices. This includes law enforcement, defense groups, state and federal elected officials from both parties, including DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and former RNC Co-Chair Ann Wagner, who are the lead sponsors of a U.S. House Resolution expressing support for our state bills.

WITW: If this passes, what’s next?

AN: If this model bill passes on both a federal level and in all 50 states, the next stage is to make sure that the rights are implemented. Getting these civil rights legally codified is only half the battle — the other half is getting them enforced on the ground. That is why part of the federal bill has a working group that includes key stakeholders to assess how these rights should be implemented.

WITW: How can people get involved in advocating on behalf of this cause?

AN: This movement is grounded in the belief that the voices of ordinary citizens matter — no matter the background, no matter the age. The criminal justice system has failed me, but I still believe in the change that our legislative process can bring. I fervently believe that anyone can make a difference in this movement. The greatest challenge this issue faces is getting people to understand how broken the system is. We need your help to spread the word. Join this movement to make America a fairer nation.