Testimony in Support of Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Amendment Act of 2017 (SAVRAA)

July 18th, 2017

The Sexual Assault Victims' Rights Amendment Act of 2017 (SAVRAA) is currently being considered in the D.C. Council. Our Teen and Young Adult Clinician, Claire Bernstein, LGSW, recently testified in support of this bill, which guarantees all survivors over the age of 12 the right to a confidential, community-based advocate as well as the rationale behind any decision that forgoes prosecution. The bill also grants minors over the age of 12 more control over mandatory reporting of peer sexual assault. Claire testified in favor of teens (ages 12-17) being able to access a confidential community-based advocate after their assault. Currently, teens do not have access to confidential information or services after an assault. Read Claire's testimony below (or rewatch the archived hearing here: 

Testimony in Support of Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Amendment Act of 2017 (SAVRAA)
June 22, 2017 

Good Morning, Chairperson Allen and members of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.  My name is Claire Bernstein and I am the Teen and Young Adult Clinical Specialist at the Greater Washington Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (JCADA).  I’m here today in support of the Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Amendment Act of 2017, particularly as it affects youth between the ages of 12 and 17.  JCADA clients would benefit immensely from the prescribed victims’ rights and protections provided in this legislation.  At JCADA, our mission is to support victims of domestic abuse to become empowered and live safely; educate the community about domestic abuse and appropriate responses; and prevent future generations from suffering domestic abuse.  We provide services to all residents of the Greater Washington community, without regard to race, national origin, ability, background, faith, gender or sexual orientation. 

One of the reasons I support this bill is because it gives victims of sexual assault who are twelve and older access to a victim advocate.  This will help victims in a variety of ways, including: giving them a voice, empowering them to understand their options, supporting them in the healing of their trauma, and helping them building a support network.  My belief in the value of an advocate is supported both by my work with teens and also a focus group of teens and their parents in DC conducted by the SAVRAA task force.

Every adolescent responds differently to trauma and has unique needs. After a trauma, many victims feel helpless and are unable to communicate what they need in the moment.  In addition, a victim’s sense of control is taken away during and after an assault.  Speaking with an advocate gives the victim the opportunity to voice their desires, concerns, and needs in a safe space.  An advocate is also able to help a victim understand their options and rights.  This is particularly important for younger victims who might not understand or be aware of what their rights are or how the legal system functions.  An advocate can help a victim better understand a forensic medical exam, interviews by law enforcement, and meetings with prosecutors. By empowering victims to know and understand their options, a victim can feel in control again.  

Victims often experience symptoms following an assault that include: feeling overwhelmed or scared; fearing for their safety; having trouble concentrating in school; avoiding certain people or places; becoming easily upset; and withdrawing from family or friends.  When the victim is unable to disclose their trauma, these symptoms may worsen or have prolonged effects. If the victim has the opportunity to speak with an advocate soon after the victimization, they are more likely to receive services that can help manage and decrease these symptoms.  As teens receive support and their trauma symptoms decrease, they regain their sense of control.  Even for victims as young as twelve, this is a particularly crucial part of the healing process.

For many victims, especially adolescents, confiding in others after an assault can be extremely difficult.  Adolescents may struggle in disclosing their trauma to family, friends, or other trusted adults in their support network.  They often fear getting in trouble or that their needs will be ignored when they share what happened. During the SAVRAA focus group, none of the sexual assaults the teens knew about had been reported to an adult or parent.  This reiterates the current gap in reporting of adolescent sexual assaults.  Meeting with an advocate provides an adolescent with a safe, trained, and confidential person to disclose to.  Not only will the support from that advocate be valuable to their healing process, but it can also help an adolescent prepare for sharing this information with the trusted adults in their life. In my experience, when adolescents are able to discuss whether and how to disclose with these trusted adults, they are more likely to feel comfortable turning to their parents.  

I’d like to share the story of one of my clients who I will call “Meg.” Meg was sexually assaulted at the age of 14 by someone she knew.  Meg did not tell her parents what happened because she was afraid her parents would be mad at her for having sex, even though it was not consensual.  She did not know what resources were available to her, so she did not receive the care she needed and deserved.  As a result, Meg did not receive any prophylactic care after the assault, and became pregnant.  Meg had an abortion and went through that procedure and its aftermath alone.  Meg also did not receive the trauma counseling she needed until years later, which caused her to struggle in school and have a difficult relationship with her parents.  In addition, she subsequently married a violently abusive man.  Now, Meg and I are working through this history of trauma and making great strides to stop the cycle of violence from continuing in her life.  

The District of Columbia has the opportunity to prevent cases like Meg’s from occurring in the future.  SAVRAA 2017 is a critical proposal that will improve services for victims ages 12 to 17.  This bill provides an opportunity to give adolescents a safe adult to speak to and receive the treatment and assistance they so desperately need. Thank you for considering this valuable initiative.  We sincerely appreciate all of your tireless work to keep the District safe by protecting our most vulnerable citizens.  I am available for any questions.

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