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Meet the 24-year-old who could change how the US handles sexual assaults

State Department official Amanda Nguyen drove forward the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act after fighting not to have her own rape kit destroyed

In what they hope will become a bipartisan bright spot, Democrats in the Senate on Tuesday introduced a sweeping new bill to guarantee and standardize certain rights for people who have experienced sexual assault.

The bill is the latest attempt to fix a system for prosecuting sex crimes that many public figures agree is broken. But where many bills focus on expanding resources for law enforcement, this is the first national proposal to focus so directly on improving legal protections for those who are sexually assaulted.

And the bill has a unique driving force behind it: Amanda Nguyen, a 24-year-old State Department liaison to the White House in training to be an astronaut who helped craft the bill. Nguyen became an activist because of her own enormous struggles with a difficult legal system that nearly destroyed her rape kit.
Amanda Nguyen’s debacle with her rape kit in Massachusetts caused her to wonder what the law guaranteed in other states.
“Basically, I had to pen my own rights into existence,” she said in a recent interview.

The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act draws from legal rights that already exist in patchwork form in different states across the county. It requires steps to ensure that people who have been sexually assaulted have access to a trained sexual assault counselor and comprehensive information about victims’ legal options. For individuals who submit to a rape kit, the bill would give them the right to know the location of the evidence, whether the kit has been tested, and the test results.

The bill guarantees these rights whether or not the person reports the crime to law enforcement or agrees to press charges. It also creates a task force to examine how well the changes are implemented, to include representatives from diverse communities and advocacy backgrounds.

“Too many survivors feel like the entire system has failed them,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, the bill’s primary sponsor. “We need a basic set of rights for people who are sexually assaulted.”

Too many survivors feel like the entire system has failed themSenator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire

Shaheen said she was confident that the bill would attract bipartisan support. Democrats and Republicans have united numerous times in recent years to increase funding for rape-kit testing, she noted, and to support legislation that streamlines sexual assault investigations in the military. A House resolution introduced last year supporting many of the same rights as Shaheen’s bill notched more than 50 cosponsors from across party lines.

But the real engine behind the Senate bill is Nguyen, the State Department employee and aspiring astronaut.

In her spare time, such as it is, Nguyen heads up an organization called Rise – a diffuse group of volunteers and activists that has put these issues of survivors’ rights in front of Congress with singular speed. It was Nguyen who moved Shaheen to introduce the measure in the Senate, and who has advocated for a growing number of similar bills at the state level.

About two years ago, Nguyen was raped and submitted evidence to the state of Massachusetts through a rape kit. Massachusetts law gives Nguyen 15 years to decide whether to pursue legal action. But a pamphlet handed to her at the hospital said that unless she filed an “extension request”, under state law, the state could destroy her rape kit in just six months.

The rules sent her scrambling to figure out how to file an extension request – the pamphlet didn’t explain how – and then, rushing to find her rape kit so she could file the request with the right person.

She still repeats her frenzied search every six months. Once, a police officer told her the kit was likely in police custody, only for a lab technician to confirm the kit was actually at a lab. At one point, a lab refused to confirm by email that it had extended her kit and would only give her a printed-out letter of confirmation once she flew to Massachusetts.

“The system essentially makes me live my life by date of rape,” Nguyen said.

The debacle caused Nguyen to wonder what the law guaranteed in other states. She made a list of more than 20 legal rights that people who are sexually assaulted have in different states and found that the degree of protection varied wildly.

Kansas and Utah, for instance, guarantee almost no rights to people who have been sexually assaulted – except a guarantee that the government will pay to test a rape kit in Utah, and in Kansas, a prohibition on forcing victims to take polygraph tests.

Basically, I had to pen my own rights into existenceAmanda Nguyen

California and the District of Columbia have strong laws surrounding access to sexual assault counselors, but neither gives victims the right to a copy of their police report. California is the only state in the country to guarantee access to the results of a rape kit, which can include whether the person was drugged.

While many groups track how many rape kits have gone untested, there are no national statistics on how many have been destroyed without the victim’s knowledge or consent. But Nguyen found that there isn’t a single state where the law guarantees retention of a rape kit until the statute of limitations expire.

Nguyen lunged into action. She gathered dozens of friends, acquaintances and advocates into a loose online network of volunteers who weighed different legal solutions and eventually drummed up support for a bill.

The group, Rise, is no one’s full-time job. But within two months of its founding, Massachusetts lawmakers had introduced a bill containing dozens of new rights for people who had been sexually assaulted. The measure would create a tracking system for rape kits and forbid law enforcement from destroying a kit without first processing and testing the kit or notifying the victim.

Within a few more months, Rise had drafted a similar proposal for interested lawmakers in California. Rise is talking to legislators in New York. Nguyen is confident the Senate bill will inspire more state efforts. The Massachusetts bill, which has 25 cosponsors, had its first hearing before both chambers of the legislature this January. Just two years had elapsed since the crime that set Nguyen on this path.

“The fact that she’s been able to build so much support, that we’ve got a bill that’s being introduced, that we’ve got a real shot at getting through, speaks to her incredible abilities,” Shaheen said.

Nguyen currently works as the White House’s deputy liaison at the State Department. Her ultimate ambition is to be selected as one of Nasa’s mission specialists. “My timeline maps out to Mars,” she said with a grin.
The long slog facing an aspiring astronaut, she said, calls for the same traits that were useful as she pressed lawmakers: she describes herself as “patient and pathologically optimistic”.

It also helps to be someone who feels like a moonshot is well within reach.

“I could accept injustice or rewrite the law,” Nguyen said. “I chose rewriting the law.”
This article was amended on 23 February. Nguyen is a State Department official, not a White House official.
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