Legislative package addresses domestic violence, trafficking

      Missouri legislators passed a package of measures intended to protect victims of sexual and domestic violence and trafficking before the 2022 regular session drew to a close on May 13.  Senate Bill 775 contained language sponsored by several House members, and now awaits action by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Hannah Kelly (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “It’s our big legislative win for this session,” said Jennifer Carter Dochler, who was the legislative liaison for the Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence during the regular session. 

      The bill was handled in the House by Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove), who was glad to see it reach the governor’s desk despite issues in the legislature that created challenges for all legislation this year.

      “At the end of the day the process that our founding fathers set out caused it to be that we were able to come together and accomplish something good despite our differences and that is a beautiful thing that everybody needs to walk away remembering should always be our highest priority.  You’re not going to find a better [issue] to do it on than this.”

      Kelly said of particular importance to her, personally, in SB 775 is the language that establishes the “Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights.”  This seeks to make sure victims know their rights regarding the gathering of evidence and related medical exams; access to incident reports; and protections from intimidation and harassment by an attacker. 

      Kelly said someone important in her life is a victim of rape and, “The provisions in this bill, I believe, would’ve brought justice for this person in a swifter manner.”

      The Bill of Rights portion is meant to, among other things, give some clarity and guidance to victims, who often find themselves traumatized and with no knowledge of what to do or to whom to turn.

All [that a victim knows] is a really horrible thing has happened that nobody ever dreams will happen to them,” said Kelly.  “The heart and soul of it is protecting victims and providing stronger protections and providing education … and what greater cause to unite behind than educating and empowering victims in these horrible situations to know what their rights are and to know the pathway by which they can appropriately seek justice.”  

      SB 775 also clarifies definitions in Missouri law regarding “sexual contact” and “sexual conduct.”  Representative David Evans (R-West Plains) said he dealt with at least one case, during his 28 years as a judge, in which unclear definitions regarding contact with minor victims hindered prosecution.

      “Taking ambiguous law or badly written law and making it clear is important clearly for the victims of crime but also clarifies, which is required in criminal law, exactly what the crime is,” said Evans.  “None of us can be convicted of a crime that’s ambiguous.  That’s protection under due process … it’s good to have specific law especially when you’re dealing with a very serious felony.”

Representative David Evans (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      SB 775 would specify that no persons younger than 18 will be prosecuted for prostitution, and if located by law enforcement while engaged in commercial sexual acts, they will be considered a victim of abuse and referred to the Children’s Division and juvenile officers to receive help.  It also eliminates the requirement that a person under 18 and charged with prostitution must prove they were coerced to avoid conviction.

      These were provisions found in legislation sponsored by Representative Ed Lewis (R-Moberly), who said the laws regarding these individuals needs to be focused on getting them help. 

      “A lot of times a minor can be in that lifestyle and not even know that they’re being trafficked, not even know that they’re being abused.  They think, ‘Well no, I’m doing this of my own free will,’ but they’re not.  They’re being abused and used by some adult for their own gain, and we have to get them the help they need to help them to understand that this is not right,” said Lewis.  “Instead of looking at these people who have come to rescue them as rescuers they can look at them as the enemy and we have to make sure that they get the help that they need so they understand what their outcome should be and how to get back to what we would call a normal life free of abuse.”

      Other related sections deal with prosecuting those who attempted to engage in sexual acts or pornography-related offenses with individuals under 18. 

      The bill also contains language sponsored by Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) dealing with orders of protection.  It would state that a person with an order of protection against them cannot skip a court date regarding that order and then plead ignorance to knowing it was still in effect.  He and Carter Dochler say this defense has often been successful for abusers who would violate an order and then say they didn’t know it was in place because they didn’t attend a hearing. 

      Roberts has often said that this and other proposals he has filed stem from his time in law enforcement – including as Joplin’s police chief and the director of the Department of Public Safety – and times in his career when he couldn’t help a victim because of how the law was written. 

      “Sometimes the law doesn’t serve the victim and sometimes, frankly, the process to provide due process to the person that’s accused ultimately re-victimizes the victim, so it’s been very frustrating to me throughout my [law enforcement] career.  Now I’m in a position to do something about it.”

      Along that same line, Roberts said a provision in SB 775 that is important to him is one that allows victims to testify via video rather than have to appear in court for a domestic violence proceeding. 

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Roberts says too often, a victim is afraid to proceed with prosecution for fear or retribution by their abuser.  This provision addresses that fear; specifically that requiring a victim to appear in court creates an instance in which their abuser will know where and when to find them. 

“If you read the newspapers you will frequently see where a domestic violence case was dismissed because the victim didn’t show up to testify.  I can’t tell you how many times that’s because they were afraid to show up but I guarantee you it’s a significant part of the number of people who don’t show up, and why.”

      With all these issues, legislators have to craft language that protects victims but also allows for due process for those who are accused.  Evans believes with SB 775, Missouri gets closer to finding the right balance between those considerations, “and again that’s one thing I really enjoy doing, is balancing the rights of those that are charged but making it absolutely clear to protect the victims of the crimes as well.  I think we’re getting there.”

      The House vote that sent SB 775 to the governor was 141-0.  Carter Dochler said the Coalition is, “very grateful and really excited [that] at a time where there has been so much turbulence on different issues that everybody could really come together and find agreement on items that would make things better for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, or some other related judicial proceedings.”

SB 775 includes several other provisions, including those that would make it a crime for any coach of minors to abuse a minor, whereas currently law speaks only to high school coaches; extends protections against the release of a victim’s personal information to include their personal email address, birth date, health status, or any information from a forensic testing report; and further restricts when the prior sexual conduct of a witness or victim in a sexual offense case may be inquired about in a legal proceeding.

Missouri legislature takes steps toward addressing ‘rape kit’ backlog

The Missouri Legislature this session passed three provisions aimed at addressing the thousands of untested rape kits in the state.

The Missouri legislature passed some measures that would address how forensic examination kits, or “rape kits,” are handled in Missouri. Advocates say the changes will likely result in more prosecutions and cases being closed, and better resolutions for victims. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Those kits include DNA samples and other evidence collected in medical examinations conducted after sex crimes.  The Attorney General’s Office has learned of more than 5,000 forensic evidence kits that have gone untested in Missouri.  The exact number remains unclear as not all agencies in the state responded to that office’s inquiries.

Public Policy Director with the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Jennifer Carter Dochler, said for a kit to be sitting on a shelf when a victim wants it to be tested is, “incredibly traumatizing.”

“When they have come forward and told their story and wanted to participate in the process it really is disheartening,” said Carter Dochler.

The Attorney General’s report suggested among other things that the state secure funding for testing kits; create a statewide tracking system for kits; and create standards for the handling of kits.  Those recommendations were addressed by the legislature in its session that ended in May.

House Bill 1355 includes language that requires the Attorney General’s Office to create a statewide tracking system for forensic evidence from sexual assaults.

That provision was originally sponsored by Representative Donna Lichtenegger (R-Cape Girardeau), who hopes it will send a message to victims in Missouri.

“I think that they’ll know now that we’re really serious in trying to find the person who violated them,” said Lichtenegger.

The budget approved by the legislature also gives the Attorney General’s Office authority to apply for a federal grant to fund a statewide tracking system.  The office should learn in September whether it will receive that grant money.

HB 1355 also requires that hospitals and other medical providers should notify law enforcement when they have a forensic evidence kit; that law enforcement shall take possession of a kit within 14 days of that notification; law enforcement shall take it to a laboratory for testing within 14 days of taking possession of it; and that law enforcement will hold on to a kit for 30 years if the related crime has not been prosecuted.

Carter Dochler says this will bring statewide continuity to how evidence kits are treated.

“We have so many inconsistent practices in the state:  inconsistent practices regarding how soon law enforcement picks up the kit; whether or not the kits are submitted for analysis; definitions we’re using,” said Carter Dochler.  “This should help create much more consistent terminology and practices across the state.”

Carter Dochler said it is hoped that with these provisions becoming law, more sex crimes in Missouri will be prosecuted.

“Especially when we’re talking about serial offenders and being able to show a pattern, having multiple kits and the same DNA among those kits is going to be a very important tool for prosecution,” said Carter Dochler.

She said some issues that still must be addressed concern how a kit will be handled when the victims in the associated case has not made a decision whether to report the crime to law enforcement.  She said many of these “unreported” kits remain in hospitals.

“What we’d like to see is consistent practice across the state regarding unreported kits,” said Carter Dochler.  “There should be a centralized place to store unreported kits across the state.  We should also have a consistent practice of how long are they kept before they’re destroyed.”

She said some of those issues could be addressed in departmental rules and regulations, and might not require future legislative action.  HB 1355 does define “reported” and “unreported” kits, and she said those definitions are a first step toward consistency.

Even with such areas still requiring attention, Carter Dochler said from the Coalition’s point of view, the 2018 legislative session saw the passage of many important laws.

“This was an incredibly successful legislative session for us.  We are incredibly proud and very hopeful for the changes it’s going to make in survivors’ life and experience,” said Carter Dochler.

Bill would add info on consent, violence, & harassment to sex education in Missouri high schools

A Missouri representative is proposing that high school students learn about sexual harassment, violence, and consent as part of sexual education.  Her legislation will be heard Tuesday night by the House Committee on Children and Families.

Representative Holly Rehder (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Sikeston Republican Holly Rehder said the idea behind House Bill 2234 was brought to her by students at the University of Missouri who said they wish they had received such an education.  They believe teaching high school students about those subjects could prevent situations that can cause life-changing harm, and Rehder agrees.

“What was so fascinating to me was you have these college students – two girls, is who initially brought it to me – that said, ‘We wish we would’ve had this,’” said Rehder.  “’We don’t know how they were in high school or what their reputation is back home and then we all get lumped in together and we’re at a party, or we’re at an event, or walking to the car, or whatever … you need to know how to speak up for yourself, set those boundaries, and you also need to know how to not cross them.’”

Numerous cases have put sexual harassment, sexual violence, and consent in the public spotlight.  One of those is the case of long-time USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.  He was sentenced late last month to up to 175 years in prison for abusing young female gymnasts.  At least one of the women who gave a victim impact statement before his sentencing has written a letter in support of HB 2234.

Amanda Thomashow tells lawmakers she realized many of those Nassar assaulted didn’t know they were being abused, at least not at first, and trusted the doctor.

She writes, “more than anything I keep coming back to one particular question:  How can we prevent such a tragedy from happening ever again?  I have repeated this question in my head, over and over, searching for a way to save others from similar evils.  I know there are many answers and I know there is no easy solution when it comes to sexual assault.  However, I also know one thing with absolute certainty; we must add consent and sexual violence to basic sexual education curriculum.  We need to equip young people with knowledge to protect and empower them, and House Bill 2234 does just that.”

HB 2234 would expand Missouri law on what must be included in sex education materials so that they cover sexual harassment, sexual violence, and consent.  It would also seek to define those terms in relation to sex education.

It would define “consent” as, “a freely given agreement to the conduct at issue by a competent person. An expression of lack of consent through words or conduct means there is no consent. Lack of verbal or physical resistance or submission resulting from the use of force, threat of force, or placing another person in fear does not constitute consent. A current or previous dating or social or sexual relationship by itself or the manner of dress of the person involved with the accused in the conduct at issue shall not constitute consent.”

HB 2234 defines “sexual harassment” as, “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature, especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate,” and defines “sexual violence” as, “causing or attempting to cause another to engage involuntarily in any sexual act by force, threat of force, duress, or without that person’s consent.”

Missouri school districts are not required to have sexual education as part of their curriculum.  The bill would require that these new areas be included for those that do.

Rehder said she looks at the issue not just as a legislator but as a mother of three.

“I think that’s the prism that we need to look at it through – what would we want for our children?  What do we want them to know and be prepared for before they go into college,” said Rehder.  “Or not college – before they go into the workplace and you have people over you.  I think that these are just very important things to know before you’re thrown out into the world.”

The hearing on HB 2234 is Tuesday at 5 p.m. in House Hearing Room 7 in the Missouri State Capitol basement.

Additional audio:

Representative Rehder said she wants students to learn how to protect themselves and to respect others:

“I want them to know some clear cut signals and how to make those clear cut signals.  I think it makes a lot of sense.  I think it’s a small – doesn’t cost the state anything but could do a world of good.”