JEFFERSON CITY, MO. — A new task force in Missouri is working to improve how the state handles and responds to victims of sexual assault.
The 13-member task force wants to hear from the survivors and the public to make changes to the system after thousands of requests for help in 2020 went unmet because of a lack of resources. The Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (MCADSV) reported nearly 15,000 people reached out for help from a rape crisis center last year but nearly 8,000 of those requests went unanswered because agencies lacked resources.
The Missouri Rights of Victims of Sexual Assault Task Force is now looking for ways to fix those unmet requests and make it easier on victims.
“Out of every 100 sexual assaults, 95 perpetrators go free,” Sen, Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said.
Nearly 80% of sexual violence is committed by someone a victim knows. Over the past year, a task force made up of lawmakers, law enforcement officers, medical professionals, and advocacy groups is working together to find ways to help victims.
“What we have determined is we have some holes in the information that we have,” Schupp said.
Schupp and Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, are the two Senate members appointed to the task force.
“As I child I dealt with sexual abuse, my mother dealt with it as a child and as an adult and my sister did as well,” Rehder said. “I’ve definitely had a front and center seat to it,”
The task force held its first of four virtual hearings Wednesday. A big concern among advocacy groups, medical professionals, and criminal investigators was funding.
“Those of us that live out in the rural areas, many time someone who is sexually assaulted will have to go maybe two hours to a hospital that actually does the forensic exams,” Rehder said.
The Missouri Rights of Victims of Sexual Assault Task Force was created under Senate Bill 569, which became law last August. Under the legislation, there are four different pillars.
First is the Justice for Survivors Act which was sponsored by Schupp. It requires resources for victims to be available via telehealth under the Department of Health and Senior Services. This network provides mentoring, training, and assistance for medical providers conducting forensic exams. It also requires any licensed hospital to be able to perform a forensic exam using a kit by January 2023.
Second, the law creates the “Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights.” Under this provision, survivors are told what their rights are throughout the forensic exam, interview by law enforcement or attorney.
The third part of the bill is the task force. Members of the task force include:
Task Force Members:
Rep. David Evans, R- West Plains
Rep. Yolanda Young, D-Kansas City
Colonel Eric Olson, Missouri State Highway Patrol
Stacey Bolinger, Missouri State Highway Patrol Crime Lab Deputy Director
Catherine Vannier, Missouri Office of Prosecution Services Special Victims Resource Prosecutor
Sarah Ehrhard Reid, Department of Health and Senior Services
Amy Schwartz, Missouri Hospital Association
Julie Donelon, Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault President and CEO
Tammy Killin, YWCA St. Joseph CEO
Sgt. Jason Strong, St. Joseph Police Department
Jessica Seitz, Missouri Kids First Executive Director
The final provision includes tracking rape test kits. This requires victims to register with the attorney general’s system to track their kits to know the status and location.
Schupp said she became involved in the legislation after a friend’s daughter was away at college and her friend was raped.
“She went to a nearby hospital and the hospital said we don’t do those kinds of examinations here,” Schupp said. “This young woman had to be driven two hours by police officers, who she didn’t know, to a different hospital. I don’t believe someone should have to travel two hours to have the evidence collected so that the perpetrator can be held accountable.”
During the hearing, Schupp said one thing that was pointed out that stuck with her, every situation is different.
“Every sexual assault is unique and different,” Schupp said. “An older woman does not necessarily require a pregnancy test where those who are of child-bearing age are required of that. Are those tests allowed to be covered under the cost?”
There’s also a survey the public can take to help the task force.
“The survey will help us to see what others have gone through, where they saw breakdown if their family member or victim of sexual assault to be able to tell us what their experience was with seeking justice,” Rehder said. “Where the holes are in our state, what’s working and what we need to improve on.”
Rehder, who is a survivor of sexual assault herself, said people need to feel embolden to tell their stories.
“I want to hear what is hindering people from not speaking out so that we can try and fix those things,” Rehder said. “Because that’s the only thing that’s going to stop it, that’s the only thing that’s going to make sexual abuses stop or become less frequent when people have to be afraid that they are going to get caught.”
She also wants people to remember, women aren’t the only victims of sexual assault.
“When we talk about sexual assault for victims, so often our mind automatically defaults to women but so many men have dealt with this as boys, as men,” Rehder said. “They tell less often than women and so we have so few prosecutions happening for this and the fact that we are shining a light on it and trying to get those best practices in place, I’ve very hopeful that people will feel more embolden to speak up.”
The survey is open to the public until September 30. You can submit the survey with your name or anonymously.
“We ask the public who have had personal experience or know someone who has or have some insight about this process to please take an online survey for us.
Click here to take the survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/MORightsTaskForce
Public Policy Director for MCADSV Jennifer Carter Dochler said COVID-19 caused the organization to lack resources because it was more limited than in previous years. She said in 2019, there were around 14,500 requests for help and only 5,500 went unmet because the program lacked resources to meet victims’ needs.
The task force is holding three more public hearings virtually.
- Sept 14 is about standard practices
- Sept. 22 is about survivor privacy
- Sept. 28 is about evidence collection
Visit the Department of Public Safety’s website to listen to the hearings: https://dps.mo.gov/dir/programs/cvsu/task-force.php
Members of the task force must then submit a report to the governor and the General Assembly by the end of the year.
If you are a victim of sexual assault or know someone who needs help, resources can be found at https://www.mocadsv.org/.