'Bill Of Rights' Gives Victims Of Sexual Assault A Voice

The state's rape crisis network logs an estimated 10,000 calls every year from survivors of sexual violence. Yet reports of fewer than 1,400 rapes made it onto police blotters in 2015.

proposed "bill of rights" for those who are on the receiving end sexual assault would go a long way to lessen that gap by ensuring that victims are treated with respect and dignity.

The measure was created by State Senate President Steve Sweeney and Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer). It has three laudable aims: reducing the shame that too often accompanies these crimes, connecting victims more effectively with services available to them, and making sure law enforcement and health-care providers are in sync when a crime occurs.

The lawmakers' goal is to codify the state's existing laws into a package that clarifies both the rights of survivors and the responsibilities of all those who treat them, who investigate the crimes and who prosecute the perpetrators.

For one advocate who worked with Sweeney and Greenstein to draft the bill, it's not a matter of adding new services, but of tightening up policies already in place.

"The idea was to put it all in one place to help streamline for survivors their process or either seeking justice or not, and getting other care in ways that right now is just very fragmented," said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The aftermath of any sexual assault is a nightmare. Dealing with the appropriate law-enforcement agencies and with mental-health providers should not be.

Key among the bill's protections is the victims' right to be taken seriously, and not to be treated as though the assault was their fault.

As importantly, the legislation also institutionalizes the victims' right to have access to mental-health and physical-health services as well as law-enforcement help -- free of charge if they opt to report the crime.

Greenstein, who chairs the Law and Public Safety Committee, notes that victims often are discouraged about pursuing legal action against their attackers, or feel overwhelmed by the burdens the system imposes.

These guarantees in the proposed bill of rights might make all the difference in their decision.

New Jersey is not alone in standing up for the rights of sexual assault victims. Among the states that have passed or are considering passing similar bills are Oregon, Virginia, Washington and Massachusetts.

The statistics are daunting: Nearly one in five women and one in 71 men are raped in the course of their lifetimes, Teffenhart says.

For all of them, and for all those who hesitate to come forward, this bill moves in the right direction.

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