WA bill would bring trauma-informed practices to sexual assault cases

The legislation aims to improve victim experiences and outcomes through better training and reviews of prosecutions.

Leah Griffin

Leah Griffin, a sexual assault victim advocate who is working closely with state Reps. Gina Mosbrucker and Tina Orwall on new legislation that would, among other things, expedite the processing of Washington's backlog of untested rape kits, photographed at her home in White Center on March 31, 2021. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

As a sexual assault survivor, Leah Griffin has spent years working to reform the public policies that she says repeatedly undercut her attempts to seek justice and heal. After the 2014 assault, she got turned away from a hospital, waited hours to speak with police and was threatened by prosecutors. 

“What I experienced at that time was a cascading system of failures,” she said.

Griffin knew something had to change. After reaching out to numerous lawmakers and other officials, Griffin joined recent efforts in the Washington Legislature to codify survivors’ rights, strengthen hospital protocols and expand trauma-informed training for police. 

“We really have just been systematically tackling the problems that I experienced,” she said.

Two key partners in that fight have been state Reps. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, and Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines. This year, the pair sponsored House Bill 1028, which would implement several steps intended to improve experiences and outcomes for sexual assault survivors seeking justice through Washington’s legal system. 

If enacted, the measure would develop additional training for prosecutors and other public officials on victim-centered, trauma-informed approaches to building cases and working with survivors based on best practices. It would also pay for a review to compare cases involving prosecutors who did and did not complete such training. 

The bill would also establish procedures requiring county and city jails as well as the Department of Corrections to collect DNA from convicted people required to submit biological samples within jails, prisons and sentencing courts, and extend the statute of limitations of some sex crimes.

Additionally, the bill would reestablish the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Best Practices Advisory Group, a legislative task force that would work with lawmakers on bills related to survivors.

HB 1028 has received broad bipartisan support, passing out of the House unanimously, but Griffin said some aspects of the bill have been changed due to budget concerns. The changes affected new investigation deadlines for DNA matches, victim notification requirements and reimbursements for out-of-state rape-kit costs. 

Leah Griffin, a sexual assault victim advocate who has joined the Washington Legislature's recent efforts to codify survivors’ rights, strengthen hospital protocols and expand trauma-informed training for police. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Even with some parts being removed from the bill, Griffin emphasized it will be extremely helpful to survivors, especially the reestablishment of the best-practices advisory group.

“The bill as is will absolutely help survivors,” she said. “It also continues the task force that has been responsible for most of the advances in the last decade.”

She considers the measures included in the bill essential to making the state’s legal system more responsive to and supportive of sexual assault survivors. 

“Part of the reason that Washington has been so successful, and really leading the nation on these issues, is Tina Orwall and Gina Mosbrucker,” Griffin said. “The two of them have really teamed up in a way that goes beyond partisanship that I don't think is happening in a lot of places.”

Orwall said her dedication to helping survivors began when she visited police station evidence rooms and found many of them were filled with untested rape kits dating back years. In 2018, a Washington state inventory check found more than 9,000 sexual assault evidence kits remained untested. The oldest dated back to 1982. As of early last year, 6,000 kits were still untested.

“Each of those boxes was a survivor who never had justice,” she said. “Their voice was never heard.”

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Mosbrucker said many kits sat waiting untested for years at law enforcement agencies or college campuses. Some kits were in poor condition due to a neglect of proper preservation. Numerous kits sustained water damage from lack of care.

“We want to make sure that when someone reports a sexual assault that we actually investigate it,” Mosbrucker said. 

Due to a renewed commitment to test old rape kits, several people who committed sexual assaults years ago have been identified through the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a national database of DNA evidence collected from the perpetrators of violent crimes like sexual assault.

“We’re literally knocking on the door 20 years later sometimes and saying, ‘Hey, sorry, we never really tested your kit. Now there’s a CODIS hit and that perpetrator has raped 10 people. Can you come testify?’” Mosbrucker said. “Can you imagine that trauma?”

In a law effective since May 2022, new sexual assault evidence kits are required to be tested within 45 days of arriving at a testing lab. In early versions of HB 1028, investigations would have also been required within 90 days if a backlogged kit generated a CODIS hit. 

Griffin said this 90-day requirement was removed for budget concerns.

“The costs of the 90-day requirement were insurmountable given the budget, and this bill allows us to continue moving forward,” said Griffin, who ran unsuccessfully for Legislature last year. 

Mosbrucker said it is important to enact shorter testing turnaround times to help prevent repeat offenses by the same person.

“Rape is serial crime,” she said. “So normally when that happens, it’s not just once. If we can figure out a pattern, then we can stop them.”

The bill would require the Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC) to develop and conduct specialized training for prosecutors involved in sexual assault cases with adult survivors. While the current law requires trauma-informed training for law enforcement, Orwall said she hopes to expand this requirement to prosecutors.

She argued that less than 1% of sexual assault charges result in a felony conviction for the perpetrator.

“We want to train our prosecutors,” she said, “We want them to know how to work with someone in a way that's supportive, that comes from a point of believing.”

Griffin said informing police officers about the neurobiology of trauma has so far been helpful in improving the treatment of survivors. Orwall added that educating police officers on trauma’s effects on survivors can help them more effectively investigate cases of sexual assault.

“Survivors felt like they were being interrogated by police, or not supported, or not believed,” Orwall said. “We started our Training Commission, which is in my district, and they do great work. They started doing trauma-informed training for law enforcement, and it’s been really successful.”

Mosbrucker said elevating the voices of survivors is another key aspect of fixing issues within the legal system.

“Survivors have the answers,” Mosbrucker said. “It’s just our job to hear their story, not just listen, but to actually hear their words and do everything we can to be trauma-informed, so that we don’t retraumatize them by having them share their story, and then to fix the broken pieces.”

Believing survivors is an important basis, Griffin said. Juries, prosecutors and others involved in the legal process need to be trauma-informed. Mosbrucker said she has worked to help combat misconceptions people have about survivors of sexual assault.

“We heard from many people that they had been raped, and the old-school thinking was that ‘You wore a short skirt or you had a beer,’” she said. “We don't need to prosecute like that. I think now we’re finally treating survivors with more respect and more dignity. Nobody wants to be raped. Nobody wants to be sexually assaulted. So I believe survivors.”

A year after Griffin was sexually assaulted, her apartment was broken into and she was robbed. Griffin said her treatment from the police was drastically better when she was robbed than when she had been sexually assaulted.

“The police just believed me that the burglary had taken place and they investigated, searched for fingerprints, looked for camera footage, and they did a thorough investigation,” she said. “Having systems that treat sexual assault survivors at least as well as victims of property crime is a good step.”

Mosbrucker said she hopes survivors realize there are numerous people like herself, who are there to help them.

Griffin said she has found it empowering to use her voice to make change. She said people who are willing to tell their story and put in work have the power to change how our system works.

She also said that people should be aware that every survivor has different needs.

“I want to see that we start to look at our systems in a way that is victim-centered,” she said. “Because the experience of victims is so diverse and the needs and wants of each survivor is so different that the more we can think about the variety of approaches that we can have, and the options that we can give survivors, the better.”

House Bill 1028 is currently in committee within the Senate. Although the deadline for a bill to pass out of committee from the second chamber is next week, bills that are part of the budget sometimes stay alive even if they do not pass that cutoff.

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Alisa Volz

Alisa Volz is a student journalist at Washington State University.