July 18, 2024 9:13 am
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‘Long Overdue’: Whitmer Signs Bills Advocated for by Sexual Assault Survivors

Credit: iStock

by Anna Liz Nichols, Michigan Advance

Lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills for years stemming from lessons the state learned from survivors of sexual violence since the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal. On Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a six-bill package and announced her intention of signing more in the coming weeks.

The victim impact statements of the more than 150 women who told their stories of sexual abuse at the hands of former Olympic Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar were the catalyst in 2018 for the introduction of several bills to address hurdles victims face with reporting sexual violence and prevent serial sexual abuse from occuring again. 

However, five years later, legislative efforts to address the rights of sexual violence victims with legislation, often referred to as “Nassar bills,” have expanded. bill sponsors and advocates say, and stand to benefit everyone in the state.

The measures in the bills signed into law Thursday are “long overdue”  and will protect survivors and prevent victimization, the state’s lead prosecutor in the Nassar case, Angela Povilaitis, said in a statement from the governor’s office Thursday. Dr. Danielle Moore, Secretary of The Army of Survivors (Photo: courtesy of Dr. Danielle Moore)

“I am incredibly proud of the persistent and tireless work of so many sexual assault victims, who have become not only survivors, but advocates for change in Michigan,” Povilaitis said. “I am also grateful for the unwavering leadership, support, and dedication shown by Gov. Whitmer and our state legislators to improve responses and outcomes for sexual assault survivors in our state.” 

Danielle Moore, a survivor of Nassar’s abuse who serves on the board of The Army of Survivors, an advocacy group created by survivors of sexual violence to advocate for education and accountability for abuse perpetrated against athletes told the Advance today that the bills signed will save children from the abuse she suffered at age 13 as a young athlete.

“We’ve been waiting for these types of changes. This is what we wanted. We’ve had gradual steps in the right direction, but I think this is a huge one. I hope other states follow,” Moore said.

The bills signed Thursday would increase education surrounding the prevention of sexual violence in the state, codify consequences for medical professionals who use their positions of authority to abuse patients and prevent schools and authority figures from preventing individuals from reporting abuse.

It’s an emotional experience to see the work of so many survivors come to fruition, Grace French, president of Army of Survivors and a survivor of Nassar herself attended said. She attended the bill signings Thursday.

“When we were at the signing, Governor Whitmer was saying how meaningful these bills were for her as a survivor and I think that’s a huge thing is to have an advocate at such a high level who understands this experience and wants to advocate for survivors and be a voice that can change the culture for the better for survivors in Michigan,” French said.

Here are the bills:

HB 4120: Requires the state health department to create training materials for mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect and publish them online.

Employers will be required to provide the materials to employees who are required by law to report suspicions or evidence of abuse. 

The legislation will work to clear up any confusion a person may have about their legal responsibilities to report abuse, bills sponsor Julie Rogers (D-Kalamazoo) said in the governor’s media release Thursday.

“This legislation is long overdue and its enactment will protect Michiganders from abuse at the hands of authority figures in our schools, athletic programs, and medical settings,” Rogers said.

Actual consequences for standing in someone’s way of getting help or seeking justice would’ve been monumental to many of the women testifying in the Nassar case, Moore said.

HBs 4121 and 4122: Require the state licensing department to permanently revoke the medical license of a licensee convicted of penetrative criminal sexual conduct under the guise of medical treatment.

Many patients of Nassar and then later the late University of Michigan sports doctor Robert Anderson have publicly told their stories of being told the abuse they suffered was a medical procedure. They reported trusting the doctors as medical professionals, as authorities figures and in the case of Nassar, a trusted adult and friend.

“We trust medical professionals with our health and wellbeing,” bill sponsor Rep. Kelly Breen (D-Novi) said in the release. “For someone to violate that trust by abusing their position and patient is beyond reprehensible.” 

HB 4123 and HB 4124: Creates prohibitions on individuals in positions of professional authority from attempting to prevent someone from reporting child abuse or criminal sexual conduct, including preventing a person from reporting to a Title IX officer.

HB 4125: Bars schools taking disciplinary action against students for actions reasonably tied to being sexually assaulted with restrictions. 

Bills like the ones signed Thursday have been a bipartisan collaboration since their beginning, Rep. Graham Filler (R-St. Johns), who sponsored part of the package, said in the release.

“When survivors gather the courage to disclose what they have endured, they should never be pressured to keep quiet by those in authority,” Filler said. “They deserve a system where their voices are amplified, their pain is acknowledged, and their courage becomes a catalyst for change.”

Throughout the last five years some bills to address difficulties in reporting sexual violence and preventing it have become law and current legislation making its way through the legislature currently aims to improve upon those changes.

Though the waiting game of legislative advocacy can be discouraging as other survivors are harmed in the meantime, French said she’s glad to see changes being signed into law.

“Any win is a big win in my book, we have to take those little steps that we can and work toward a safer future with those little steps and continue to reintroduce the things that have not been reintroduced,” French said.

Because several survivors of Nassar’s abuse testified that they told trusted adults what was happening to them and those coaches and trainers didn’t report the abuse, lawmakers and survivors pushed and got signed into law legislation for more professionals to be added to the state’s list of mandatory reporters who are required to report to authorities suspicions or evidence of abuse.

In 2018, the statute of limitations for victims of some sex crimes to file civil suits was extended for victims abused before age 18. Previously, victims had until age 21 or 10 years after the incident, whichever was later. That was raised to age 28 or 15 years after the incident, whichever is later. 

Now lawmakers are seeking to nearly double the age to 52 years old.

Survivors and advocates for years have told lawmakers it can take a lifetime for someone to realize they were sexually abused as a child and then report it. State Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.), who has been a longtime sponsor for multiple bills stemming from the issues raised by survivors of Nassar, said in April the experience of witnessing what happened at MSU is a huge motivator for her to get legislation across the finish line.

“When children suffer sex abuse, they usually don’t disclose that abuse until they’re in their 50s,” Brixie said. “This phenomenon is well documented and is called delayed disclosure and delayed disclosure, combined with our state’s archaic statute of limitations law allows 86% of child sex abuse to go unreported.” 

However, there should be no statute of limitations on the crime of rape as it is “the murder of a soul,” Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who sentenced Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison in January 2018, told lawmakers in the House Criminal Justice Committee on June 6.

Aquilina, as well as survivors of sexual assault, testified in front of the committee in support of other sexual violence bills including the removal of governmental immunity that protect agencies from getting sued that has lacked movement in the Legislature in the past.

Moore called institutional immunity “reckless” in an interview with the Advance earlier this month, lamenting that in the past when bills got “chopped up” to ensure some protections could be turned into law governmental immunity was left on the chopping block.

“It’s unfortunate that you have to kind of barter like that when it comes to keeping people and children safe,” Moore said.

Cathy Kalahar, a former tennis player for the University of Michigan who said she was sexually abused by Anderson, who more than 1,000 individuals have reported similar experiences, said when she told a university counselor she had been assaulted, she was ignored, The Associated Press reported in 2021.

“I was raped by the University of Michigan, through their employee, Dr. Robert Anderson,” Kalahar said.

Other bills Whitmer committed to sign in the coming weeks include age-appropriate educational materials to be provided to students creating awareness of what counts as inappropriate sexual contact and what to do if they or a friend experiences it. The bills include SB, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, and 236. Other items include requiring parental consent for certain medical exams for minors and amending the state’s freedom of information act requirements to redact information revealing the identity of anonymous victims.

The educational component stands out to Moore and she said she’s eager to see students be empowered to recognize abuse.

“That would be absolutely amazing because it’s confusing for children or teens. …  They don’t always know where to start,” Moore said. “I think that would be a huge step because a lot of the times a child or teen doesn’t know where to turn to or there’s that embarrassment or shame, I would love for that to just [be signed]. They need to know about general boundaries. I’m not quite sure why they’re not teaching that to begin with.”

It’s hard to say if the climate of addressing sexual violence in Michigan has been improved, French said. Having been a part of a big case with famous athletes, French said she had an opportunity to be believed whereas other survivors who often stand alone don’t.

“I think there’s still work to be done and opportunity for Michigan to really be a leader in that space and to consider all the intersectionalities and ways that different identities face barriers when coming forward so that we can take those barriers down and really allow survivors to come forward and use their voices to thrive beyond survival,” French said.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.