The woman behind the sexual-assault survivor ‘bill of rights’

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NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 27:  Activist Amanda Nguyen attends MTV Total Registration Live at MTV Studios on September 27, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for MTV)

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: how one woman’s struggle to protect evidence in her rape case led to the start of a movement — and now, a new federal law.

John Yang has her story.

AMANDA NGUYEN, Sexual Assault Survivor: Over and over again, I started discovering is a system that is so broken.

JOHN YANG: For sexual assault survivors like Amanda Nguyen, this small box has the tremendous power to deliver justice and bring closure. It’s a rape kit. Inside are the tools to collect and store the evidence to track down and prosecute an assailant.

AMANDA NGUYEN: Rape is notorious for being under reported, and it’s because survivors are faced with a system that is stacked so high against them.

JOHN YANG: Amanda was assaulted in 2013 when she was in college in Massachusetts. Rape kits are automatically destroyed in that state after six months unless the victim asks for an extension. And how do they do that?

AMANDA NGUYEN: The catch is that there’s no information given on how to extend it, and the greater catch is that there’s no way to actually extend it.

JOHN YANG: Even after she filled out the proper forms, the bureaucratic confusion continued.

AMANDA NGUYEN: I found out that, against an extension put into place, my kit was wrongly removed from the forensic lab and almost destroyed. So, even if I have played by their game, it still is broken.

JOHN YANG: After that, Amanda began asking questions. She learned that, in most states, police can legally destroy rape kits well before the statute of limitations runs out.

AMANDA NGUYEN: What that literally means is that, if I was raped in a state that doesn’t destroy kits, like California, Colorado, Texas, Illinois, then this wouldn’t have happened to me, and it’s just because Massachusetts doesn’t have those rights.

JOHN YANG: An activist was born.

AMANDA NGUYEN: I had a choice. I could accept injustice or rewrite the law. And one of these things is a lot better than the other. My mission is simple: Fix the patchwork of rights.

JOHN YANG: Amanda formed a coalition of rape survivors demanding a federal bill of rights. A Change.org petition has more than 140,000 signatures.

Most sexual assaults are investigated and prosecuted under state law, but Amanda believes that a national standard can serve as a model for statehouses. Earlier this month, that finally became a reality when President Obama signed the Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights. It’s the first time that the term sexual assault survivor appears in federal law.

The bill says those who’ve been assaulted should be clearly told their legal rights, be able to track the status and results of their rape kit, not pay for a rape kit exam, and be able to get the police report.

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN (D-N.H.): The way we met Amanda is that she just started coming to offices on the Hill.

JOHN YANG: To help draft the Sexual Assault Survivors Act, Amanda turned to Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

Senator, tell us, what would the bill do? What’s in the bill?

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN: Oftentimes, the system makes people feel like they are being re-victimized.

And so the bill is an effort to say that survivors of sexual assault should have certain rights under our criminal justice system, and they should know what those rights are, and they should be treated — everyone should be treated fairly.

This is something that is overlooked in the law the way it exists now. And so it was really her advocacy and her determination that has raised this issue, and gives us all of those supporters around the country who can help us talk to other senators and members of Congress to get this done.

JOHN YANG: Amanda’s coalition is now lobbying state lawmakers across the country. Versions of the bill are pending in several states, including Oregon, California and Maryland, and has even passed in Massachusetts. The overall goal of the bill is to empower assault victims with information.

LINDSEY SILVERBERG, Advocate, The Network for Victim Recovery of DC: It’s so scary, it’s so overwhelming to walk into a hospital to not have any idea really about what is going to happen.

JOHN YANG: MedStar Washington Hospital Center in the District of Columbia offers every patient requesting a rape kit exam a forensic nurse specially trained to conduct those exams and a sexual assault advocate like Lindsey Silverberg. She’s there to provide victims with legal and emotional support.

LINDSEY SILVERBERG: One of the benefits of having an advocate, with somebody in the exam room and then following up after with them, is that, if they decide to then engage law enforcement after the forensic exam is over, they have somebody who can walk them through that system.

And we have seen an increase in the number of people who have decided to report to law enforcement after an exam, once they have all the information about what that looks like.

JOHN YANG: But, in many states, full-time professional advocates like Lindsey don’t exist.

LINDSEY SILVERBERG: Access to competent, well-trained individuals, both an advocate and a forensic nurse, is not the national standard at the moment.

JOHN YANG: Amanda continues to champion the rights of the estimated 25 million sexual assault survivors nationally. She is cheered by unexpected encounters like this one with an Uber driver on one of her many rides to Capitol Hill.

AMANDA NGUYEN: He didn’t talk to me the entire ride, but he saw I was going to the Senate. So, he asked me. And I told him the reason why and what I was fighting for. And this man who I would never met before, who was once intimidating, started crying. Like, just — tears just welled up in his eyes.

And he turned to me and he said: “My daughter is a rape survivor. And when she went to the system, they didn’t treat her right.” And when we arrived at the Senate, he stopped and said: “Can I shake your hand? Thank you so much for fighting for my daughter.”

JOHN YANG: For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m John Yang in Washington.

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