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.
The clear need for improved quality of hospital-provided care to sexual assault victims doesn’t negate the difficulty of passing a bipartisan law in the midst of divisive House and Senate. Griffin believes the current political climate will aid her mission, though, and isn’t deterred by the divisiveness.
“If anything, the current political climate is really helpful. When the bill was first submitted in 2015, and when I first started working on these issues in 2014, it was really hard to get people motivated to make phone calls and to care, really. Since the political climate has changed so much, now it’s a lot easier to convince people to make phone calls and send emails. The climate is actually motivating people to speak out.”
On the other end of the phone, I was smiling. It was a silver lining that I needed.
Griffin also has seen first-hand that it is possible to bring Republicans and Democrats together in the name of justice and in support of sexual assault victims. She worked on Washington State House Bill 1068; a bill that managed rape kit testing in Washington. The same bill also created a sexual assault task force, which Griffin sits on as a representative of survivors. The task force is bipartisan, co-chaired by Tina Orwall (Democrat) and Gina McCabe (Republican). It was that very task force that created a tracking system for rape kits in Washington State, so survivors can know where their kits are in the system at all times. That tracking system is the first of its kind.
Griffin also worked on House Bill 1109, which provided training for police officers and increased state funding to help test backlogged rape kits. Currently, in Washington State alone, there are an estimated 6,000 backlogged rape kits, according to a 2015 statewide audit. USA TODAY and journalists from more than 75 Gannett newspapers and TEGNA TV stations found at least 70,000 neglected kits nationwide.
While numerous initiatives at the federal level have worked to end the backlog — including President Barack Obama’s 2014 Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) — it’s estimated that every two minutes a woman is raped in the United States. Simply put, more work needs to be done. Developing nationwide best practices for rape kits and providing hospitals with an adequate staff that’s sufficiently trained to care for sexual assault survivors and collects evidence is that necessary step towards higher conviction rates and a lower number of backlogged rape kits.
Still, Griffin will not be discouraged. Currently, there are no bipartisan co-sponsors of the SASCA bill. Senator Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) office is looking at the bill and working on it, according to Griffin, as is Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas) and his office. When asked about the likelihood of acquiring bipartisan support, the passion in Griffin’s voice is palpable.
“I’m optimistic,” she told me. “Just this year, the House created a task force to talk about sexual assault issues. The task force, in the House, is bipartisan. So we’re hoping this bill will be one that’s recommended.”
Her answer was not only resolute, but somewhat of a taunt; as if she was silently daring Democrats and Republicans alike to tell sexual assault survivors that justice, for them, doesn’t matter if it means the two sides would have to work together.
By the end of my conversation with Griffin, I feel exhausted. While I’m six years removed from the attack, the rape kit, and the failed attempt to bring my abuser to justice, it all feels painfully recent. Griffin, however, sounds unphased by the subject matter. I asked how she continues on. Her answer, like Griffin herself, is a reminder that some things are far greater than the differences that can divide us. “This happened to me and it was awful. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. With more people willing to speak out and make phone calls, it means we have a really good shot of getting bipartisan support.”
Look for the helpers. You will always find them.