By Joe Johnson
This month not only is the 20th annual National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but it is when Georgia will be taking a significant step in assisting assault survivors.
Already approved by the General Assembly and set to be signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, the Georgia Sexual Assault Reform Act of 2021 will allow survivors access and the ability to see exactly where evidence in their cases are and track the progress of their cases throughout the process.
“The bill will provide transparency and accountability that will ensure all sexual assault evidence kits are being submitted for testing in a timely manner,” said Michelle Dickens, executive director of the Athens-Clarke County Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners Inc., a nonprofit agency that provides victim forensic examinations and evidence collection, court testimony, and community prevention education related to rape, sexual and physical assault.
A law was passed in 2016 that required law enforcement agencies to pick up any sexual assault kit within 96 hours of evidence collection and submit that evidence to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s State Crime Lab within 30 days.
However, according to Dickens, there was no way for a victim or any other partner agency to know if law enforcement had actually submitted the evidence.
“The Reform Act of 2021, provides the much-needed ability to track what happens with evidence after it leaves a medical forensic facility like ACC-SANE,” she said.
The law provides for states a phased implementation to the kit tracking system. However, ACC-SANE, Inc. will be participating as one of the test sites for the system.
Another thing the new law will do is change outdated language regarding a survivor's right to have medical forensic care without deciding to have that evidence turned over to law enforcement, according to Dickens.
“The law previously referred to this in terms of a survivor's ‘cooperation’ and now refers to it in terms of the survivor's ‘choice,’” she said.
In addition, the bill will require law enforcement agencies to report certain types of crime and data to the FBI's Violent Crime Apprehension Program (ViCAP) so that patterns of crime and crimes that are serial in nature are more likely to be linked across jurisdictions.
“This is important because we know that sexual assault and homicides with a sexual assault component are often serial in nature, and crimes like these are not confined by jurisdictional lines.” Dickens said. “This law creates a system response that is also able to reach beyond those lines to provide accountability and resources for offenders, and justice and safety for survivors and our community.”
ACC-SANE, Inc. participates on the state’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council's State Expert Committee and was able to provide input on multiple aspect of the new legislation, Dickens said.
The purpose of Athens-Clarke County Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners Program is to provide victim forensic examinations and evidence collection, court testimony, and community prevention education related to rape, sexual and physical assault. SANE nurses and SAFE (sexual assault forensic examiners) are medical professionals who have completed specialized training in the evaluation and forensic examination of adult, adolescent and child victims of sexual assault and abuse. SANE nurses participate in a 24-hour, seven days a week on-call rotation. In addition to examinations, nurses also provide expert witness testimony in criminal proceedings. SANE also has forensic medical examiners who are specially trained to treat patients who have experienced child physical abuse.
The agency serves 10 counties in Northeast Georgia and is the sole provider of forensic medical care in Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties.
To learn more about ACC-SANE, Inc. or provide through donations support visit saneinc.org.