Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is poised to sign a bill into law that will enable more sexual assault survivors and young stalking and harassment victims to obtain protection from abuse (PFA) orders.
Under current state law, only a small subset of survivors qualify for PFAs because the law requires that the assailant be a household member or former intimate partner. After the new law goes into effect, survivors who have been assaulted by strangers or acquaintances and who do not initiate criminal charges will be able to petition a judge for civil protection.
“While we want sex offenders to be incarcerated, sometimes there’s not enough evidence, sometimes the victims just can’t handle the process,” Diane Moyer, legal director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR), told RH Reality Check. “It’s a very arduous process.”
PCAR and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery/Bucks), have been working to pass this legislation for the last decade. They say 28 states have similar protections.
The new law reflects the reality that most rapes are committed by assailants known to the victim. Victims are sometimes dissuaded from filing formal charges in a system that often requires victims to go public about their trauma, and still results in statistically few convictions.
The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that 60 percent of rapes are never reported to the police.
The new law is particularly good news for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses.
“We get calls from college students … deciding whether or not to go through the university adjudication process,” said Kristen Houser, PCAR’s communications director. Campus-based adjudication processes do not result in criminal convictions; they only determine if the alleged assailant transgressed student conduct codes. Even when they are found guilty of violating student conduct, though, assailants are often given light sentences, such as a one-semester suspension.
“The thing is, you’re living on a college campus, and your sphere of domain could be so small,” said Houser. “You have a high chance of repeated run-ins, and for someone who has been sexually assaulted, that is really terrifying.”
As a result, in many cases, victims drop out of school, while their alleged attackers graduate.
An amendment to the bill provides similar recourse for stalking and harassment victims who are under 18.
Under current law, stalking and harassment victims who are minors cannot obtain a PFA unless their assailant is a current or former household member, family member, or former intimate partner.
Chatham University student Sarah Pesi, 18, discovered the law’s shortcomings when she was victimized by an adult male stalker at 12 years old, and discovered she couldn’t do anything about it.
“I got my first job as a soccer referee, and I really enjoyed my job,” Pesi told RH Reality Check. While she was working, an adult male soccer coach began to follow her around the soccer fields. “You tell them to stop, and what you say doesn’t matter, and you don’t have control over what’s happening to you, which isn’t a good feeling to have,” Pesi said. “It was really stressful.”
Pesi and her parents tried to obtain a PFA to protect her, but discovered she didn’t qualify for one because the man wasn’t a relative and she hadn’t dated him—a rule that applied despite her being only 12 years old. So Pesi quit her gig as a referee.
“It affected my self-esteem a lot,” she said. “I was still supported by my parents, but for somebody who that’s their main source of income, and they support themselves, that’s a huge deal.”
Pesi did some research and discovered that seven in ten stalking victims knew their offender in some capacity, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The bill’s supporters have estimated that under current law, fewer than 60 percent of victims do not qualify for legal protection.
Two years after the incident on the soccer field, Pesi wrote a draft of a bill to expand PFAs for minors for a good government class. But she wasn’t satisfied “leaving it as something imaginary,” she said.
Pesi participated in GirlGov, a program encouraging girls’ participation in politics run by the Pittsburgh-based Women and Girls Foundation. The group provided mentorship and resources to help Pesi make the bill a reality.
“It’s been our number-one policy priority,” said the group’s CEO, Heather Arnet, who has accompanied Pesi to Harrisburg to rally support for her initiative “dozens of times.”
“They let me take the lead, but offered me information and advocacy and guidance, and support to get the bill actually … moving,” said Pesi. “Stalking has been framed as this personal problem. I knew it wasn’t going to help me, but it could help others.”
Six years after she first tried to obtain her own PFA, the new law is about to become reality.
“When I was 14, it was hard to be taken seriously,” said Pesi, who’s now a public policy major. “I’ve been surprised by … how long it can take it to get a bipartisan [bill] passed.”
Once signed, the “Protection of Victims of Sexual Violence or Intimidation” act will go into effect in July 2015.