Thirty days after Abby Haglage walked into New York City’s Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital requesting a rape kit, the clock started ticking.
According to state law, the hospital had to keep the rape kit for 30 days. After a month, the kit — which contained the evidence of a crime — could be destroyed. But no one told Haglage. When a hospital employee asked her if she wanted to submit the sexual offense evidence collection kit to the police immediately, Haglage said no. She still felt disoriented, confused, and despite being faultless, she blamed herself.
“It seemed completely terrifying to hand it over to police,” said Haglage, who was 25 at the time. The hospital “didn’t give me any information about what would happen from there. They just kind of sent me on my way.”
It was 2013, and Haglage wouldn’t contact the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Unit for another two years. Haglage dealt with “indescribable” pain. She switched apartments, joined a support group for sexual assault survivors and attended therapy sessions — but feelings of guilt were omnipresent.
“For sexual assault survivors, guilt is often a frequent but uninvited visitor,” Haglage said. Slowly, the voice spewing self-blame began to quiet down. Another voice, one that said that the rape was not her fault, got louder and ultimately drove her to the NYPD.
She thought: “If this stranger just plucked me off a corner, what’s to stop him from doing that to another girl? Or maybe he’s already doing it, and I can stop him.”
But when Haglage met with the NYPD in 2015, she discovered her rape kit had been destroyed. No one called to notify her or asked for her consent, and it was completely legal. Without evidence, there was no case, Haglage recalled a detective telling her.
“My case just died with the destruction of my kit,” Haglage said.
Haglage felt demoralized. But then, in 2017, she met Amanda Nguyen, the founder of nonprofit Rise, and a fellow survivor who had taken the laws surrounding sexual assault into her own hands.
Today in New York, no health care provider can legally destroy a rape kit after 30 days. In March 2018, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced a provision in the 2019 budget that extended the storage timeline for forensic rape kits from 30 days to 20 years. The announcement came after a CNN investigation reported rape kit destruction was taking place throughout the country and almost two months after Haglage shared her story in a news conference organized by former New York state Sen. Kemp Hannon (R) and Assemblymember Aravella Simotas (D). The lawmakers had been working with Rise on a Survivors’ Bill of Rights tailored to New York for months. Cuomo’s decision to mandate the preservation of rape kits, which was also championed by the Joyful Heart Foundation, only fulfilled one component of Rise’s model bill.
Nguyen, now a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, authored the Survivors’ Bill of Rights after founding Rise in November 2014. In an email, Nguyen asked everyone she knew for their help so that she could create change: First at the federal level to establish a nationwide standard, and then she would take it to the states. Soon enough, her inbox was full of responses from other survivors, coders, attorneys and more. By the end of September 2016, Rise had accomplished a relatively rare feat: The U.S. House and Senate voted unanimously to pass the Survivors’ Bill of Rights. The following month, President Obama signed the bill into law. It provides basic rights to sexual assault survivors. These rights include:
- Every sexual assault survivor must be notified of these rights in writing. These rights are not contingent on whether a survivor reports the assault to law enforcement.
- No survivor can be prevented from receiving a medical forensic exam, and they cannot be charged for one.
- A sexual assault counselor must be available to the survivor.
- Survivors are entitled to a copy of their police report.
- The rape kit — also known as a sexual assault evidence collection kit — must be preserved, without charge, until the statute of limitations expires or 20 years, whichever is shorter.
- Upon written request, survivors must be notified of their rape kits’ intended destruction date 60 days beforehand. They should also have the option to preserve the rape kit.
The passage of the bill at the federal level was a major win for Rise and survivors nationwide, but there was still work left to do.
“After the federal bill passed in 2016, we needed to enact the same thing 50 more times because sexual assault is adjudicated on the state level, and every state has different laws,” said Jennifer Li, a Rise volunteer. For example, in Oregon, a rape kit must be stored for 60 years. In Florida, it depends on what county you’re in. “Amanda’s vision was that the federal bill would be a model for the state to follow. … We’re going state by state to enact the same set of rights so that justice doesn’t depend on geography.”
Rise’s coalition of volunteers — or Risers — have spent the last few years writing state-specific versions of the Survivors’ Bill of Rights and working with legislators to ensure passage. There are more than 150 Risers across the country, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s and survivors themselves. For some volunteers, Rise offers “an alternative path to justice,” Nguyen said.
Amaris Leon, a Riser who is on the ground in Florida, never went to the police after she was sexually assaulted in a parking lot more than a decade ago. “I didn’t seek medical treatment or go through the judicial system because I couldn’t afford it,” Leon said. She didn’t have health insurance and started her college career while living in her car. If resources were available to her, she didn’t know about them.
“For a really long time, I felt such shame and guilt for not reporting my crime,” Leon said. She often thought about other people her assailant may have attacked.
Survivors like Leon are essential to Rise’s success as a movement. They understand sexual assault in a way that others simply cannot.
“The people who have the solutions to America’s most pressing problems are the people who live the problem every day,” Nguyen said, “and there is a market gap between those people and those who hold the pen to write these laws. We are disrupting that.”
Since 2016, Rise’s efforts have led to the passage of 20 bills. As a result, laws have changed in 15 states and Japan. After receiving letters from people around the world, the organization began working with the United Nations to pass a resolution based on the Survivors’ Bill of Rights.
Prior to joining Rise in 2016, Li wrote a seven-step plan in response to being sexually assaulted in New York. She stopped after the fourth step: “Go to [the district attorney] if police don’t believe me.”
She took a break, and when she met Nguyen a couple years later, Li was in “a better mental space,” she said. “[Amanda] had already built a structure. I didn’t need to reinvent everything. I just had to help her vision.”
The Rise founder immediately folded Li into the organization, inviting her to lobby members of Congress prior to the federal bill passing. Li later helped look through New York’s penal codes and discovered the same fact that would later shock Haglage: Hospitals only had to store rape kits for 30 days.
After Li moved to Oakland, Calif., and began working with state legislators on California’s Survivors’ Bill of Rights, which Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law in 2017, she stayed involved with New York’s campaign. Li coached Haglage, who had by then joined Rise, on the process.
As 2018 came to a close, they both had something to celebrate: Gov. Cuomo signed New York’s Survivors Bill of Rights into law on Dec. 21. Simotas, who sponsored the bill in the the New York State Assembly, said that the voices of survivors were what drove lawmakers to act.
“When rape survivors talk about what happens to them, I can tell you there’s never a dry eye in the room,” Simotas said. “As legislators and human beings, we want to help make sure the process that survivors have to undergo is informed and compassionate.”
On the day the New York bill was signed into law, Nguyen was elated — and extremely proud of her team: “They’re the ones who have driven this,” she said.
Rise has a small paid staff headquartered in Washington, D.C., but the organization relies on volunteers spread out across the country. (“We don’t go into a state unless a survivor in that state has reached out to us,” Nguyen said.)
The organization follows a theory Nguyen created calls “Hope-a-nomics,” which gamifies the process of passing a law.
“When a new Riser comes into the game, they are paired up with a coach,” Nguyen said. “To win a game means you have gotten the bill to the governor’s desk and gotten it signed into law.”
The game has 12 levels, which include finding a bill sponsor or learning how to share a personal story, and people can earn badges along the way. The way the system is set up, volunteers end up with the tools they need “to share their story in a way that is authentic and true to who they are,” said Riser Sergio Lopez, who is working on bills in Connecticut, Maine and North Dakota. “Telling your story is probably the single most impactful thing you can do, whether it’s meeting with a legislator, writing an op-ed or meeting potential allies. You don’t need to be a politician or really polished.”
Rise also trains its volunteers to “cut through the political theater” so that lawmakers can recognize that the Survivors’ Bill of Rights is a nonpartisan effort, Nguyen said. Her strategy continues to be effective.
Before being elected to the U.S. Senate in November, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley served as Missouri’s attorney general. He met with Riser Miriam Joelson, who lives in St. Louis and is dedicating her time to passing a Survivors’ Bill of Rights in the state. In Alabama, Riser Michelle Wang has been coordinating with state Sen. Cam Ward (R).
Wang grew up in North Carolina, and like Nguyen, she went to Harvard for her undergraduate degree. (A year older than Wang, Nguyen was her “big sib” in the university’s Asian American Association.) She moved to the South after spending five years in Boston. When she started medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, it felt like a “minor shock,” Wang said, especially since “2016 was an ugly year, politically.” Wang felt the urge to organize, but she didn’t want to do it out of a place of hurt, anger and division.
Rise felt redemptive.
Nguyen has structured Rise in an intentional way. Although the organization is goal-oriented, and there are high standards for producing quality work, she doesn’t want people to “run into activism and burn out,” she said. Volunteers are working 20 to 40 hours a week on top of holding down jobs that pay, going to school, or both, according to Nguyen. If volunteers need to take time off, they do, no questions asked. It’s something Li is conscious of.
“We often tell ourselves, ‘Oh, I can’t rest,’” Li said, “but I always keep this in the back of my mind: ‘I can’t give myself when I don’t have anything to give.’ It’s fine to take a break.”
Li also knows that she can depend on the Rise community if she’s going through a tough time because they’re survivors, too.
“It’s a really shitty club to be apart of,” she said, but “Rise is really helpful for that emotional support.”
And typically, Risers find that the work itself is energizing.
“Our weekly calls always feel like such a celebration of what we do on the ground every day,” said Joelson, who joined Rise in 2017. “Once you identify a cause that is so close to your heart, it doesn’t feel like work. After I was raped, I felt like I was I living in my assailant’s world. When I do activism, I feel like I live in my world. I get to shape the world that I want to live in now and that I want my children to live in one day.”
In other words, Joelson said in a message meant for survivors: “It does get better.”
“Ten years ago, I didn’t think it was going to, but it does,” she added. “I might never see justice for my rape. My assailant might go on to be president, never spend a day in jail or have any kind of moment of reckoning, but it’s still worth fighting for [our rights]. There were so many moments when I wanted to give up, and I encourage everyone not to.”