Sexual assault survivors push legislative change

Seeking systematic reforms, victims spoke up this legislative session.

“Sexual assault is the most heinous crime against another person short of murder. Sexual assault inflicts humiliation, degradation, and terror on victims.” -Washington State Legislative declaration, 2007

One could hear a pin drop between the phrases in their stories. Nine women testified, many fighting tears, but all breaking the silence.

“Most people think that a rape ends after the physical assault does,” survivor Megan Freney said. “I’m here today because that is not the case. Getting raped was not the hardest part. It was each step after that got progressively harder.”

Freney and eight other women testified for a bill to eliminate the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes in the Senate Law and Justice Committee on Feb. 19. It was a central moment for a legislative session that saw much talk about sex crimes legislation. But while alleged victims and their advocates pushed to enact new laws and adjust existing laws to expand the rights of survivors, progress was slow.

Freney was able to prosecute her case after fighting for two years, she said in her testimony, but she recognizes that not everyone gets that chance.

“That’s why I’m here today,” she said. “To fight for the women who come after me so that they have the chance to make the decision when they’re ready.”

Women like Lisa Flotlin, who testified that she was 16 when a high school teacher pressured her into a sexual relationship.

“Due to the statute of limitations, my abuser would never face charges,” Flotlin said. “This was the most devastating day of my life. It had taken me eight years to come up with the courage not only to share my story, but to finally force my abuser to be held responsible. To this day I am crushed that I ruined my chances at legal action by not arriving at this emotional state sooner.”

Christina-Marie Wright was in sixth grade when her teacher inappropriately touched her and her best friends.

“We told, but it did not stop,” she said.

The school and the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction conducted an investigation, she said, that found the teacher had abused other children as well.

Ultimately, she said, no action was taken. “Even then the system failed,” Wright said. “We had no legal advocates and we weren’t offered services.” After 32 years, the teacher still lives in her hometown, and still works with children.

“I was four years old when one man made a decision that would alter the way I would see the world for the rest of my life,” survivor Jana Peterson said.

She endured sexual abuse as a child, and later, sexual domestic violence in her marriage.

“I pray to persevere for the sake of my girls, but this lifelong sentence in prison conditions are finally ravaging my body and my ability to sustain my own existence,” she said. “I can tell you that pedophilia is the rotten ground that plants the seeds of noxious weeds that you as lawmakers fight every day: addiction, mental health, homelessness, domestic violence.”

“I was eight and I didn’t understand what was happening, but I knew it wasn’t right,” Dinah Griffey said.

Her mother had just escaped a violent marriage before marrying Dinah’s stepfather. He was a convicted child molester, but convinced Dinah’s mother that he was wrongly accused. He gave Dinah alcohol, she woke up to touching, and later found holes drilled in the ceiling above the shower.

“I wasn’t safe at home and I didn’t know how to stop it,” she said. “I was afraid no one would believe me.”

She grew rebellious when her attempts to reach out for help were not effective. When she reached out to the police, they told her the statute of limitations would not allow her to prosecute. She missed the deadline by days.

Laws in place are meant to protect children in cases like these, but they all failed her. Her stepfather is no longer alive, but his effect on her life lives on.

“As survivors we live with this every day,” Dinah said. “It doesn’t go away just because there’s an expiration date.”

Statutes of Limitations

In 2015, Dinah Griffey’s husband, Rep. Dan Griffey (R-Allyn) sponsored legislation to eliminate the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes, including rape and child molestation. After four years, the bill got further than it ever had in 2018: Passing the house with a 90-8 vote, and making it to a hearing in the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

“When Dan and I first met, he saved me from the person that was hurting me,” Dinah said fighting back tears, a waver in her voice. “Dan was the first person I was able to open up to. I will never forget that, and I won’t forget this.”

Chair of the Senate Law and Justice committee Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, previously said he would not hear the bill in his committee if it passes the House. “Human beings deserve to go on with their lives,” he said. “We have statutes of limitation in every area of the law with the exception of murder. I think that special status is appropriate in cases of murder.”

High school teacher Leah Griffin read what Sen. Pedersen said in a news story.

“That quote punched me in the gut,” she said. “As a survivor I never get to move on with my life. I’m dealing with this forever. To make a comment about a rapist moving on is so incredibly missing the point.”

The bill to eliminate the statute of limitations for sex crimes altogether passed the House, but the Senate would only consider an altered version that would eliminate the statute of limitations for felony sex offenses for victims 12 and under at the time of the crime.

“It was a compromise I didn’t want to make, but if we’re going to start this righteous policy going forward, this is the class of people that should be protected first,” Rep. Griffey said.

At least 14 states have no statute of limitations for children under 15 to 16 years old, according to a state-by-state comparison from the National Center for Victims of Crime. Eight states do not have any statute of limitations for prosecuting felony sexual assault.

David Ward, an attorney with Legal Voice, a women’s and LGBTQ rights law center in Seattle, said the most common thing he’s heard from survivors is that the language of the law needs to be centered around them. Focusing on the perpetrators, Ward said, can lead to a culture in which a victim’s testimony is questioned.

“It is so common in our culture and is sometimes reflected in our law,” he said, adding that there is no evidence to support claims that victims often lie about sexual assault.

The current statute of limitations for sex crimes dates back to the 1970s and Washington state representatives have been fighting to change the statute for years.

Former Rep. John Ahern (R-Spokane) introduced a bill to extend the statute of limitations for child victims in 2007. He tried again in 2011 to no avail.

In 2013, former Rep. Jeff Holy (R-Spokane) picked up where Rep. Ahern left off, sponsoring a bill that forms current law. Under that bill, which passed in 2013, victims of sex crimes as children have 10 years after the crime or until their 30th birthday to report and prosecute.

Unprocessed Evidence

Sexual assault kits (also called rape kits) consist of evidence collected during a medical exam following a sexual assault. After evidence is collected, the kits have to be processed through a DNA database of past perpetrators. If the kits are never processed, there is no chance for a victim to prosecute with evidence of a sexual assault.

Washington state has a backlog of roughly 10,000 untested sexual assault kits, according to the Washington State Patrol’s response to a public records request. This contrasts with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs’ 2015 surevey of law enforcement across the state which found a backlog of an estimated 6,000 untested kits. The number of backlogged kits were underestimated because some law enforcement agencies in the state did not provide data for the original survey in 2015. The oldest case on record at the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory in Seattle goes back to 1992.

A law passed in 2015 required law enforcement to submit a request for laboratory analysis within 30 days of receiving a rape kit. This applies to new kits, but didn’t mandate any action on the backlogged kits.

The 2015 law also created a 20-member Sexual Assault Forensics Examiners task force meant to study the best practices for supporting survivors. The taskforce is co-chaired by Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, and Rep. Gina McCabe, R-Goldendale.

The revelation that there are 10,000 backlogged kits resulted from the task force’s recommendation and progress report to lawmakers in 2017.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice also awarded the Washington State Attorney General $3 million to process rape kits, investigate, and prosecute cases as a part of its Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.

House Bill 2353, sponsored by Rep. Orwall, would have required those backlogged kits prior to 2015 to be submitted for lab testing, but the bill died without a vote this session.

Rep. Griffey offered an amendment to the House-proposed operating budget to provide $2.5 million to test the backlog of more than 10,000 untested kits, and Rep. McCabe added an amendment to extend the sexual assault task force for another year.

“This work is too vitally important to stop,” Rep. McCabe said.

Senate heathcare comitteee chair Ann Rivers, R-Vancouver, said she is working with the majority and minority lead budget writers Sens. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, and John Braun, R-Centralia, to urge them to accept the House’s requests for funding in those areas.

“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been touched by this in some way,” Sen. Rivers said. “This is bipartisanship at its very best in Olympia.”

But other aspects of the state budget were filled with political contention this session and Rep. Griffey and Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard, scolded lawmakers for not doing enough to support survivors.

A bill by Rep. Caldier—which would ensure rape victims get timely notice of the availability of rape kit exams at hospitals—died on March 2.

“Shoving this legislation aside this year is an affront to all survivors, dozens of whom traveled to the Capitol to tell their stories and courageously advocate for change,” Rep. Caldier and Rep. Griffey wrote in a prepared statement. “In Olympia, we talk a big game about standing up for the most vulnerable among us. Yet when it comes to something as important as helping sexual assault victims, we always seem to fall short. That’s unacceptable.”

Shortage of Sexual Assault Nurses

As of 2016, a total of 74 hospitals throughout Washington employed sexual assault nurse examiners, but they are not equally distributed across the state, according to a report from the Washington State Department of Commerce. Eight rural counties do not have a nurse examiner on staff.

The report also finds only one Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner training program in the state, the one at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

“Nurses do not receive consistent support from hospital administrators,” the study says. “This may include gaps in shift or on-call coverage, lack of consultation and case review, or inadequate case compensation.”

Rep. McCabe’s HB 2102 passed this session. It requires the Office of Crime Victims Advocacy to determine best practices for training sexual assault nurse examiners, and making those nurses available at hospitals throughout the state.

The bill suggests finding ways for each hospital district to hire and train sexual assault nurse examiners, including more training centers, implementing a course in nursing schools across the state, and even telemedicine.

Jessica Johnson is the executive director of Safety, Advocacy, Growth Empowerment (SAGE) in Wenatchee. The hospital there has a qualified nurse, but the city is far from many outlying communities. For example, the trip from Bridgeport to SAGE in Wenatchee is about a two-hour drive.

Johnson said she’s heard from victims who have been redirected to hospitals hours away because their local hospital does not have a nurse certified to do the examination.

This happened to high school teacher Leah Griffin, who was turned away from a hospital in 2014 after an assault because they didn’t have a qualified nurse on staff. She traveled to another hospital hours later and underwent six-hours of testing.

Rep. McCabe also said these tests are complex and have a risk of re-victimizing someone or failing to provide effective evidence if done incorrectly. The kits have to be sent to the Washington State Patrol and sometimes outsourced to other lab facilities for testing. Even then, the examination kits could go untested for years.

Victims’ Burden of Proof

Despite evidence of injury and a toxicology report from the sexual assault examination showing she had been drugged, prosecutors would not take Griffin’s case because she could not prove her abuser knew he raped her. She said the requirement that a lack of consent was clearly expressed by words or actions puts the burden of proof on the victim.

“It is an uphill battle all the way through from the point of the assault, all the way through a court case,” Rep. Orwall said at a work session for the task force last year.

Rep. Orwall introduced HB 2465 this session in an attempt to change the definition of rape in the third degree. Under the current statute, the definition of rape in the third degree is sexual intercourse to which the victim did not consent and the lack of consent is clearly expressed, or where there is a threat of harm.

The bill would have removed the requirement for evidence that the victim clearly expressed their lack of consent, but didn’t make it past the Senate.

“Too often the focus is on whether or not the survivor resisted enough,” Priya Walia, an attorney at Legal Voice said. “This bill shifts the burden from the rape survivor having to prove that they resisted enough and rightly putting it on whether there was actual consent.”

Having trained victim advocates and first responders who understand the neurobiology of trauma is critical to prevent re-victimization, Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs executive director Andrea Piper-Wentland said during the work session last year. That deeper understanding can dismantle a notion that the victim should have fought back more, she said.

When the brain reacts to a stressful response, it sends signals to the body to fight, flee, or freeze, according to research from Janine D’Anniballe, Ph.D., director of Access, Emergency, and Community Services at Mental Health Partners in Boulder, Colo. “Tonic immobility” is a response to a stressful or dangerous situation in which a victim cannot move, the research states, and it happens in nearly half of all rapes.

On average, 90 percent of victims experience re-victimization in their interactions with law enforcement when they report the crime, according to research from Michigan State University psychology professor Rebecca Campbell.

“When people do decide to report and speak up, if it’s not a positive experience, it won’t happen again,” said Tasha Smith, executive director of the Pierce County Sexual Assault Center. “That’s a challenge for us. We can do a lot better with understanding and seeing things through a trauma lens.”

Unreported Sex Crimes

Only about 36 percent of sexual assault crimes are reported. Of those reported, 12 percent result in arrest and only six out of 1,000 result in charges, according to Piper-Wentland.

Difficulties getting to a hospital with a qualified nurse, the invasive nature of the examination itself, and a distrust in the prosecuting process afterward can deter a victim from continuing with the process, Rep. McCabe said.

As a public high school teacher, Griffin is a mandated reporter by the state.

“Until the reporting system isn’t as traumatizing as the assault, it’s unreasonable to expect people to come forward right away,” she said.

Bystander intervention training in middle school and high school can help adolescents find their voices and assist in a safe transition to college life, Smith said.

“All of these laws work together to create a system of reporting,” Griffin said of a variety of bills focused on sexual assault survivors.

“It takes time, especially for the adolescent,” Rep. Griffey said. “Even for my wife who has been very open with this. She felt confined. Absolutely confined thinking that her monster, her stepfather, would injure her family if she came forward. We just have to acknowledge that the power the victimizer has over the victims is long reaching and we need to be respectful of that.”

After fighting for four years, Rep. Griffey’s bill to eliminate the statute of limitations was scheduled on the Senate floor calendar. But the bill died without a vote in the Senate.

“I will fight to the bitter end until the gavel strikes and it’s gone,” Rep. Griffey said in response to Senate inaction.

He plans to re-introduce the bill every year until it passes, but it’s not his own struggle that he worries about. “What breaks my heart is having the survivors testify one more time.”

Survivors seeking help can call the RAINN National Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member in your area. For more specific help at Washington Sexual Assault Centers visit the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs website.

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.