A rape kit is often seen as the first step in bringing a rapist or assailant to justice.
But for Amanda Nguyen, it’s something she has to contend with twice a year – every six months, she must fight to keep her rape kit in the system.
In some states, there are decades-long backlogs, with thousands of kits waiting to be tested. But in other states, they’re never tested – because if the crime isn’t reported, they’re destroyed within a certain amount of time. In Massachusetts – the location of Nguyen’s 2013 rape – it’s six months.
The additional layer of trauma Nguyen found in dealing with the criminal justice system in the aftermath of her rape led her to create the non-profit organization Rise, dedicated to preserving and furthering the rights of survivors.
Nguyen and Rise have worked with elected officials to introduce two bills: One in Massachusetts and a federal bill in the United States Congress, which passed unanimously through the Senate (something that happens with only 2.8 percent of bills.) They’re working to raise the funds necessary to pass bills like this throughout the country with GoFundMe.
Progress has already been made in Massachusetts with the Bill of Rights for Victims of Sexual Assault. After a day spent in the Massachusetts State House, Nguyen and her Rise co-workers spent 14 hours on their feet, talking to everyone they could about the necessity of the bill. Their approach was effective – that evening, the Speaker of the Massachusetts House brought it up in session, and it passed. This week, the bill will be voted on the Massachusetts State Senate.
This win came against the odds: Nguyen nearly didn’t get on the plane to Massachusetts after being told there was a slim chance of the bill even passing.
“I thought, ‘I’d rather just cry at home before it gets slaughtered,’ ” she says. But it was the encouragement of members of the Rise team who told her to be present, so she’d be able to look them in the eye if they didn’t pass the bill. And it was the face-to-face time with the members of the Massachusetts House that swayed them to her cause.
“There’s nothing more powerful than hearing it straight from the people it has affected,” Nguyen says. “We pushed the boundaries from a 0 percent chance to a 100 percent chance in 14 hours.”
Nguyen revisited her own experience as well, explaining the elaborate process she has to go through every six months to keep her kit in the system. In some states, that time period is even shorter – in New Hampshire, it’s just 60 days, and in Florida, it’s 30. Although extensions to the six-month limit are available, there are no official instructions given to survivors on how to get one, so Nguyen has had to get creative.
Kits are destroyed if a survivor does not press charges – a decision that is deeply personal to Nguyen as she has not yet reported her criminal case because she has a full-time job out of the state of Massachusetts, (she is currently the Deputy White House Liason for the U.S. Department of State and lives in Washington, D.C.) and doesn’t currently have the time and resources to participate in a months-, possibly years-long rape trial.
“It’s up to everybody to make their own choice,” she says. “This six-month rule really hurts my chances of [pressing charges] because it destroys one of the most critical pieces of evidence.”
However, a survivor in Massachusetts has 15 years to make that decision, as that is the length of the statute of limitations. This means that although survivors have 15 years to report the crime, the essential evidence needed to convict their rapist will be destroyed within just six months.
“It’s traumatizing,” Nguyen tells PEOPLE. “It is a horror situation, and I don’t know if my justice is going to be preserved.”
Protecting rape kits from being destroyed is only one aspect of what the bill of rights hopes to achieve. They also want to give survivors access to their rape kits for free, a request that can cost thousands of dollars.
“The crime is treated differently than other crimes,” she says. “Why are survivors forced to pay for their rape kits?”
Many of the protections the bill is looking to make federal law are relatively basic, Nguyen says. They include the right to have your rape kit not be destroyed before the statute of limitations is up, not requiring rape survivors to pay for evidence collection (something that not even convicted criminals have to do), mandating that survivors must be informed when their rape kits have been tested and that they’re able to receive their kit without cost in the first place.
What’s happened so far with the Massachusetts bill is promising, but only scratches the surface of what Rise is hoping to achieve: To pass a Sexual Assault Survivor Bill of Rights in all 50 states and on a national level. The federal bill, the Sexual Assault Survivors Act, was introduced back in February by New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. It received bipartisan support and was passed unanimously through the Senate in late May. Now, it is being examined by the House Judiciary Committee, and Nguyen says Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has indicated it will be brought to the House of Representatives floor in September.
Nguyen believes a national bill has the power to shape the way survivors are treated across the country. Within weeks of the federal bill being introduced in Congress, Rise was contacted by officials from 12 different states who said they wanted to use the bill as a model to pass something similar in their own states. They later learned that even more states (Minnesota in particular), were crafting their own bill.
“People just don’t know this is as deep of a problem as it is,” she says. “And when people find out, and they are empowered with something that they can do about it, then they will go and do it. This hope is contagious.”
However, getting a bill through Congress isn’t easy – or cheap. Everyone who works with Rise is a volunteer, and Nguyen says they can’t do it alone. So they recently took to GoFundMe to raise the money needed to make the bill of rights a reality at the national and state levels. Their goal is big: $450,000, and as of press time, they’ve raised just under one percent of that, $4,055. Nguyen says she’s drained her personal back account to travel back and forth to Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. in order to fight for these bills.
Beyond financial worries, there’s also the added pressure of time: The bill must pass before December 18, the end of the congressional session.
“We have the opportunity to make this a reality for everyone in the nation, because this is organically happening,” Nguyen says. “A federal bill is a place and a platform that is visible.”
But that’s just the beginning: Nguyen and the rest of the volunteers at Rise want to see a bill of rights become law in all 50 states, as well as across the world. She just returned from Japan, where a similar bill is being presented. With the money raised, they hope to send more survivors to share their stories with politicians and hire full-time staff to further their efforts and increase awareness.
“It’s a very personal motivation,” she says. “I can’t wait for the day I can write to the forensic lab and say, ‘This is the law,’ and I will no longer need to do this. You can’t destroy my rape kit anymore – you can’t destroy anybody’s.”
“I cannot wait to do that.”