In times of anger, pain, violence, and sadness, I usually find myself leaning on a quote by Mr. Rogers, the iconic children’s show host: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
I’ve been looking for the “helpers” for months now. People who are working within a divisive system — and sometimes in spite of it — to bring those with opposing viewpoints together. That’s how I found Leah Griffin, a 32-year-old sexual assault survivor from Washington State who works as a librarian, and tireless advocate, fighting to gain bipartisan support to pass the Survivors Access to Supportive Care Act (SASCA). The bill would assist hospitals in providing adequate care for sexual assault survivors by implementing federal standards of care. It would also establish a grant program to expand access to Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) training, creating a national task force to address the quality of the exams, and establishing a national best-practices clearinghouse so that healthcare providers can improve the quality of care offered to sexual assault victims in their most vulnerable moments.
In speaking with Griffin via phone, it wasn’t lost on me that we were two sexual assault survivors on opposite ends of the country, bound by our shared experience, no matter how unique, our trauma. Then again, and sadly, many women can probably say they’ve shared similar revelations. One out of every six American women has been a victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. They are Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, Liberals, rich, poor, and of every race. They live in cities and rural areas, are single and have families, work and are unemployed, and practice every known religion (or none at all). Sadly, sexual assault binds the 17.7 million American women who are victims of attempted or completed rape together. Many are capable of seeing themselves in stories about backlogged rape kits, maltreatment by police officers, victim blaming, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the lasting effects of rape culture.
Which is why Griffin’s work is so important. She’s bringing Republicans and Democrats together to give sexual assault victims one more bit of common ground: A sense of justice.
The creation of the bill began in April of 2014 after Griffin was raped. She was turned away from a local hospital because “they didn’t do rape kits,” so she started making phone calls and sending emails to anyone who would listen. Griffin’s experience is not unique, either. In 2016 the United States Government Accountability Office found that only 17 percent of Tier One and Tier Two hospitals are fully equipped with Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE).
“That is a staggeringly low number,” Griffin told me. “Everyone can agree that in order to prosecute rapists, one needs to have evidence. If the evidence collection isn’t available to survivors, that lowers a prosecutor’s ability to prosecute rapists, and this is a law and justice issue that I think everyone can agree on.”
When sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement — and it’s worth noting that an estimated 63 percent are never reported to the police — very few cases end up being prosecuted. The National Violence Against Women Survey (NVAWS) states that only 14-18 percent of all reported sexual assaults ultimately get prosecuted, and less than four percent of all rapes ultimately lead to a conviction for the offender. If the SASCA bill passes, hospitals across the country would be better equipped to provide their patients and survivors with adequate evidence collection — aiding prosecutors and victims while bringing more perpetrators to justice.
Recently, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) released national best practices for sexual assault kits and, according to Griffin, the SASCA bill meets recommendations 6,7,9, and 10 of this report.
“What the NIJ is calling for is exactly what this bill is intended to do,” said Griffin. “It gives hospitals and sexual assault victims access to SANE nurses. There’s a massive shortage of sexual assault nurse examiners right now, and without them and other trained personnel available to collect evidence, you’re not able to prosecute rapists.”
The steadiness of Griffin’s voice as she continued to describe the lackluster capabilities of hospitals nationwide both impressed and confounded me. Throughout our conversation I struggled to focus; finding myself bombarded by memories of the SANE nurse who administered my own, ultimately futile, rape kit. Yet Griffin was steadfast in her resolve, almost calm, as she continued to highlight how she was let down by a system that’s, essentially, non-existent.