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New administration offers hope to survivors of sexual violence

New administration offers hope to survivors of sexual violence
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As survivors of sexual violence have dealt with the stresses of the pandemic, a chaotic political season and civil unrest, RAINN has seen record demand for our victim services programs — the highest in our 26-year history. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the risks that kids have faced throughout a long national quarantine, the majority of victims we helped online through the National Sexual Assault Hotline in 2020 were kids

While there are a lot of urgent challenges that the Biden administration must face, history tells us that both President Biden and Vice President Harris care deeply about combatting sexual violence and will make the issue a priority. Over the next two years, with continued bipartisan support in Congress, we should be able to pass policies that will make a measurable difference in the lives of survivors, increase the chance of obtaining justice and build on programs to prevent sexual violence in the first place. 

Biden, both as a former senator and as vice president, helped pass two of the most crucial — and successful — anti-rape laws we have, the Debbie Smith Act (DSA) and Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), both of which help states process a huge backlog of untested DNA evidence from (mostly unsolved) rape cases.

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Forty-two percent of all matches in the FBI’s DNA system, Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), are due to DSA funding. As a result of this success, and growing awareness of the value of using DNA evidence in identifying or exonerating suspects, the demand for testing has soared. This increase means that the backlog of untested evidence has not yet been eliminated. While some states have reduced or cleared their backlogs, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of rape kits still sit untested in police stations and crime labs. Meanwhile, serial sexual offenders remain at large and free to reoffend.

As a candidate for president, Harris proposed an additional $1 billion infusion over four years to eliminate the rape kit backlog. We agree that this level of commitment will be necessary to finally fix the problem.

What about the evidence that never gets collected or is collected improperly? There’s a lot of proof that an exam performed by a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE), instead of one done by an untrained medical professional, is less traumatic for victims and far more likely to result in collecting usable DNA evidence. Today, many survivors decide to put themselves through this incredibly invasive exam — only to find that the closest SANE is at a hospital hours away. Fortunately, there’s an easy fix: we need to pass legislation to train more SANEs and ensure they’re accessible to every victim who chooses to have an exam.

Evidence collection is an important step but it is worthless if the police are unable to effectively investigate a reported rape. Congress and the administration can help make reporting less traumatic for survivors by incentivizing states to require that investigators complete trauma-informed victim interview training. This will ensure that survivors are more likely to be treated fairly, which will likely make it easier for them to work with investigators to pursue justice. 

Children in particular face a heightened risk of abuse by family members during the pandemic. In addition, the amount of child sexual abuse material online has drastically increased. Images depicting sexual abuse by a family member or trusted adult are more likely to be widely traded online.

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RAINN would like to see the administration establish a new White House Office on Child Exploitation and Abuse and declare the abuse and exploitation of children a national emergency. In addition, the Department of Education (DOE) should be directed to work with states and the tech industry to add abuse reporting functions to all online learning and social media platforms.

We also urge Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. VAWA historically has had strong bipartisan support; however, reauthorization remains snagged in Congress. As part of any reauthorization, historically marginalized communities —  Alaskan Native, American Indian, LGBTQ+, those with limited English proficiency or who are deaf or hard of hearing — should not be forgotten.

Much of the funding for local service providers comes from penalties and fines from criminal cases, which are deposited into the Crime Victims Fund and appropriated by Congress. Because fines and penalties have dropped in the last few years, this funding is plunging even as COVID-19 is stretching already overwhelmed local providers beyond capacity. 

To replenish the fund, we urge amending the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) to allow penalties and fines from deferred and non-prosecution settlement agreements to be deposited into the fund. In addition, local service providers rely on the Sexual Assault Services Program. We urge that program funding be doubled.

Every 73 seconds another American is sexually assaulted and every nine minutes that victim is a child. We look forward to working with the Biden administration and Congress to fix that. 

Scott Berkowitz is the founder and president of RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline and programs to prevent sexual assault and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.