State bill would give sexual violence survivors more information, control over their cases

Patty Oakland creates slides from materials swabbed from the body. (File photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In an effort to keep survivors of sexual violence in Colorado more informed about their evidence kits, the state legislature is discussing a bill that would require medical professionals and law enforcement officials to provide information to survivors about the status of their evidence collection kits.

The bill’s specific language states “the division of criminal justice in the Department of Public Safety and a statewide coalition for sexual assault victims to convene a statewide multidisciplinary committee to research the creation of an existing statewide system to track forensic medical evidence related to a sexual assault (medical evidence) whereby victims may access specified information concerning the medical evidence.”

Rep. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat representing Routt and Eagle counties, helped push the bill through the House Judiciary Committee, where it passed unanimously.

“It expands the rights that victims in these heinous crimes have in that they can be confident that they know what’s going on,” Roberts said in an interview. “A lot of times, victims of these types of rime undergo a rape kit examination following the crime, but then they don’t know what happens to that evidence.”

In addition to serving as a state legislator, Roberts also works as an assistant district attorney in Eagle County, and he said sexual assault evidence collection kits, also called rape kits, are essential to bringing justice to survivors.

“These are some of the worst cases we get in the district attorney’s office,” Roberts said. “Cases can take years to prosecute, so this gives victims the right to request information about what’s going on with their rape kit.”

By its nature, survivors of sexual violence have had their autonomy taken from them, and the process of reporting to law enforcement can also feel intimidating and invasive, sexual violence advocates said.

“Sexual assault is a really disempowering experience,” said Chelsie Holmes, a confidential advocate at Advocates of Routt County. “After a traumatic experience, people are not always able to retain information like they normally can, and it’s good to have that reminder.”

Holmes said the bill would also put some of the power back into the survivor’s hands by helping them feel empowered and informed about their case.

“Any amount of control and agency we can give people in the aftermath of an assault is going to be beneficial to giving their power back,” Holmes said. “When we give people as much information as possible about what the process looks like, we can help them heal.”

Elyse Diewald, forensic nurse examiner and program coordinator with UCHealth Northern Region, said many patients she works with on sexual violence cases feel intimidated and experience a stigma around reporting sexual violence and going through the criminal justice system.

“It’s not an easy thing to do, it’s not easy to show up at the hospital and ask for help and talk about what happened,” Diewald said. “When we have these patients come to the hospital, we’re able to provide them with medical care, provide them with resources, help communicate with police.”

Diewald said if the bill passes, it will help clear up confusion for survivors about the status of their cases and help streamline the process of where survivors can turn for help.

“This will give them an opportunity to actually follow their kit and see where it’s at,” Diewald said. “They have that information, and it empowers them to be able to be at least aware, if not in control, of what happens next and know that it’s not just sitting there, that there’s something happening.”

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