Sweeney & Greenstein Offer ‘Bill of Rights’ for Sexual Assault Victims

Trenton – Senate President Steve Sweeney and Senator Linda Greenstein have introduced legislation to establish a “Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights” for victims of sexual assault and sexual violence, putting in place practices and procedures to provide the care and treatment needed by victims and to ensure their safety and support in the wake of assaults that can cause physical and emotional trauma.

“Sexual assault is a crime that has occurred in the shadows for far too long and is often treated as a crime of shame for the victims,” said Senator Sweeney. “The assaults can inflict physical and emotional trauma on the victims that can last a lifetime. They should not be victimized by the law enforcement process after being victimized by the assault. They have the right to be treated with respect and dignity by a system that protects their safety and well-being. A Victim’s Bill of Rights will provide the legal and emotional protections they deserve.”

The bill establishes rights for medical treatment by a provider of the victim’s choice, mental health services, to speak privately with a rape care advocate, an attorney, member of the clergy or a family member or friend who can provide support and to receive protection against additional assaults. The victim would have the right to speak privately at any point in the process of reporting a sexual assault or receiving services. The victim would also be entitled to formally report the sexual violence, or to refrain from making a formal report to any person or institution, including law enforcement authorities. The victim could also choose whether to participate in any investigation of the assault.

“In recent years we have made significant advances in the recognition and protection of the rights of crime victims but victims of sexual violence are more likely to be blamed for the crime and not taken seriously,” said Senator Greenstein, who chairs the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee. “These victims are sometimes discouraged from proceeding with their complaints and as a result are not afforded the protections and rights that they deserve or the support services they need. All victims of sexual violence have the right to be treated with respect, dignity, and empathy in all circumstances.”

The bill defines the rights to assist the victim in contacting a sexual violence program regardless of the victim’s age, race, gender, cognitive capacity, physical abilities, or sexual, medical, or mental health treatment history. This will help to address a gap in current conditions where many agencies operate without the policies and procedures to support victims’ rights.

Nearly one in five women and one in 71 men have been raped in their lifetime, according to national statistics. Almost 30 percent of male rape victims said it happened when they were 10 years old or younger while 79 percent of female victims said it happened before they turned 25.

Inequality, oppression, and discrimination are the root causes of sexual violence, research indicates. Because women and girls are given less power and value in society, some people feel they can violate women and girls’ boundaries and commit acts of violence against them, advocates say.

“As New Jersey’s Uniform Crime Report continues to reflect an increase in the number of sexual assaults reported to law enforcement, and our county-based rape crisis centers report having provided counseling services to 10,000 residents last year, the introduction of a Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill of Rights sends a strong message to our communities,” said Patricia Teffenhart, Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, who worked with Senator Sweeney and Senator Greenstein in producing the legislation. “New Jersey promotes public policies that empower – this is a clear example.”

The New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault is the statewide advocacy and capacity building organization that represents the 21 county-based rape crisis centers, and the Rutgers University Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance.

The Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights

· The right to have any allegation of sexual assault treated seriously; to be treated with dignity; and to be notified of existing medical, counseling and mental health services, whether or not the crime is reported to law enforcement.

· The right to be free from any suggestion that victims are responsible for the crime; that victims were negligent or assumed the risk of being assaulted, and to be free from any suggestion that victims must report the crimes to be assured of any other rights or any suggestion that victims should refrain from reporting crimes in order to avoid unwanted personal publicity.

· The right to no-cost access to the services of a Sexual Assault Response Team as provided in the Attorney General’s Standards for Providing Services to Victims of Sexual Assault, and to the choice to opt into or out of any of the team’s services.

· The right to be confidentially or anonymously tested for sexually transmitted infections and/or Human Immunodeficiency Virus; the right to be informed of any rights that may be provided by law to compel and disclose the results of testing of sexual assault suspects for communicable diseases.

· The right to have forensic medical evidence retained for a minimum of five years, to receive information about the status of the evidence and to choose whether to participate in any investigation of the assault.

· The right to reasonable efforts to provide treatment and interviews in a language in which the victim is fluent and to be given access to assistive devices to accommodate the victim’s disabilities.

· The right to information and assistance in accessing specialized mental health service; protection from further violence; and other appropriate community or governmental services, including services provided by the Victims of Crime Compensation Office; and all other assistance available to crime victims under present law.

· The right to be apprised of the availability and process through which to seek protections through application for a Sexual Assault Restraining Order or Sexual Assault Survivor Protection Act if the victim believes that they are at risk for re-victimization or further harm by the perpetrator.

The bill would also require that these rights be included in the Attorney General’s Standards for Providing Services to Victims of Sexual Assault, posted in all SART participating emergency rooms, law enforcement agencies, and sexual violence service organizations.