The #MeToo movement marked a significant — and long overdue — step forward in raising awareness of sexual assault. At Gender Justice, our goal is to build on its progress, taking the next steps toward stopping sexual assault and a world where abusers can trust they will be held accountable, because survivors are heard and valued.
Survivors like Renee “Rae” Florek, who first came to the Gender Justice offices for help in 2014. Rae had been sexually assaulted the year before by her then-boyfriend Randy while she was in a deep sleep brought on by the pain medication prescribed as part of her cancer treatment. She might never have known about the violation, except that he bragged about it a few days later. He had asked her for sex, and she turned him down, but “That’s OK,” he said, “I took you two times the other night.” He laughed. She was horrified. “That’s rape,” she told him.
She reported the crime to police, only to find that the investigator assigned to her case was a friend of Randy’s. Even with key evidence, including a legally obtained recording in which he confesses to the assault — and tells her to “get over it” — the police would not pursue the case. The county attorney refused to bring criminal charges. The broken criminal justice system failed Rae Florek. Civil litigation provided the only path available for her to hold her abuser accountable for his actions.
A jury of six men and one woman found Randy liable in December 2017 for sexually assaulting Rae. “That’s justice,” she said, and was overcome with emotion as the judge read the verdict. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the unnecessarily long, hard road she had been forced to take — she still hadn’t reached the end.
Six years after the assault — in March, 2019 — a second judge upheld the jury’s decision, rejecting Randy’s efforts to appeal and finally closing this painful chapter. And yet Rae is one of the lucky few. Many others in her situation will never see justice because the financial barriers are too high. Bringing a civil case to court can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars, and few attorneys do this type of work at a rate that low- and middle-income people can afford. Organizations like Gender Justice, that offer low-cost or pro bono legal assistance, are chronically underfunded and able to serve only a fraction of the people who need help. As a result, countless survivors go unnoticed and their abusers unpunished.
This is why, for us, “believe survivors” isn’t a plea or a demand, but a call to action. The work is not easy, and will ultimately require a host of structural, legal and social changes. But there are meaningful and tangible steps Minnesota can take now to break down some of the barriers to justice that currently make the courts inaccessible to many survivors.
Minnesota could pass a law — similar to one currently on the books in California — requiring that perpetrators who are found liable in sexual assault cases cover the survivors’ legal fees. This would help some survivors, though the benefits would be limited to cases where the perpetrator has the financial resources to pay. Minnesota lawmakers could also improve access to civil courts by boosting funding for the Crime Victim Reparations Board, which would allow it to help cover attorneys’ fees for sexual assault survivors.
Along with other anti-violence and gender justice advocates, our goal is to help not only individuals like Rae, but all survivors by reforming and improving how the entire justice system addresses sexual assault.
Until then, on behalf of Rae and far too many others like her, we will continue the fight.