Sen. Martha Hennessey

Sen. Martha Hennessey

WHEN discussing sexual assault and domestic violence, we often hear how an abuser’s power comes from their ability to isolate their victim. This isolation can make the victim feel alone, with nowhere to turn, and prevent them from reporting their abuse. For the past three months we have touted the mentality that it is “safer at home” but for victims of sexual and domestic assault who have been stuck behind closed doors with their perpetrators, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Senate Democrats are committed to making New Hampshire safer and more just for all. We have worked across the aisle to craft bipartisan legislation to strengthen sexual assault statutes and improve prevention education and services. In our most recent session, I was honored to work with advocates and my Republican colleagues to bring forward a package of legislation that addresses these issues.

HB 705 as amended is a comprehensive bill that increases protections for victim-survivors and gives our court system the necessary tools to process and deliver justice in cases of assault and abuse.

When I joined the Legislature, my top priority was increasing education around sexual assault prevention in higher education. As a survivor of campus assault, I know the lasting impact it can have in a young person’s life. No student should feel unsafe while walking through campus, but that is the reality for too many college students. According to the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, 83% of sexual assaults occur before the age of 25. In 2017, the national estimate showed that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. HB 705 incorporated SB 679, my bill to mandate higher education institutions to adopt comprehensive policies and procedures in relation to sexual assault including educational information, awareness programming, and confidential resources.

While extending sexual assault prevention and education is a critical first step, we must do more. A quarter of New Hampshire women and 1 in 20 men have already experienced assault; as legislators, it is our responsibility to give our survivors the tools needed to find closure through justice. HB 705 incorporates language from Senator Martha Fuller Clark’s bill, SB 508, to end the statute of limitations for civil action based on a sexual assault and allow an action at any time. For many survivors, it takes time to process the tragedy they have endured and the current statute of limitations can take away their future opportunity to seek justice. By removing this barrier, we give our courts the necessary tools to build successful cases and give the survivors and their families the closure they deserve.

For survivors choosing to seek justice, we must do everything in our power to protect them from those who would seek to profit off of their assault through the sale of over the counter rape test kits. We heard in public testimony about the dangers of the DIY rape test kits — from attorneys that these kits would not be admissible in court, thereby weakening a survivor’s case, and from sexual assault nurse examiners about the inability of these at-home kits to provide the comprehensive care survivors need and deserve. These kits do not offer an alternative method for testing, they offer false hope and the possibility of a devastating loss in court.

This bipartisan package of legislation protects our children by removing the exception for married minors from the definition of sexual assault, increases the cap on assistance for victims of crime, and establishes a committee to study the needs of crime victims and enforcement of statutes governing crime victims’ rights.

Additionally, in separate amended bills, the Senate has preserved HB 1645, which amends the waiting period to petition for annulment of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense. More than any other crime, domestic violence represents a high risk for escalating violence; it is essential that these records be preserved because the cases are not only dangerous for the victims but also for those who respond to the cases, whether that be law enforcement or social service providers. HB 1599 is also moving forward to the House; this bill establishes a special marriage officiant license with a portion of the license fee being deposited in the fund for domestic violence programs.

Regardless of political party, we should all agree — our survivors cannot be silenced and they should not be denied justice.I am proud of the bipartisan work done this session in the Senate to increase protections for our victim-survivors of domestic and sexual assault. To the victims and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, you are not alone. Not now, not ever.

Senator Martha Hennessey is a Democrat representing Senate District 5 including Canaan, Charlestown, Claremont, Cornish, Enfield, Hanover, Lebanon, Lyme, and Plainfield. Hennessey lives in Hanover.

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