Champions for Minnesota sexual assault victims are determined to reform what they call a haphazard justice system by establishing rules on how rape kits are stored, while giving survivors their own bill of rights.

A coalition of advocacy groups, law enforcement and legislators is working on initiatives that would mirror the Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate last week, which would establish how long evidence from sexual assault exams must be kept.

Currently, each Minnesota county can decide how long it saves rape kits. And counties, which pay the cost of sexual assault exams, have been unlawfully billing victims, according to a recent state study.

"You can expect these issues [to be] discussed in the upcoming legislative session," said Caroline Palmer, law and policy manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA), which released the study. "People are starting to realize that we have some challenges in our state and there's a lot more we can be doing."

Standards on processing rape kits and enhancing victims' rights during a criminal process are also being discussed, said Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell, who has been involved in the legislative initiatives.

"What we don't want to happen is to create a chilling effect for victims if they feel like this is an intrusive process," Schnell said. "We want to do things that will encourage and help make them feel that we are supportive."

Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said he's seen several drafts of initiatives that could be introduced in the legislative session that kicks off next week. Small said advocacy groups, law enforcement officials and legislators are working hard to create better practices.

"We are very interested in ensuring victims receive the very best services," Small said. "We all have that same goal."

Storage lengths vary

Under the federal bill, law enforcement officials would be forbidden from destroying a rape kit without testing it or notifying the victim within 60 days.

"Too often, survivors are not told what is happening in their cases, find that vital evidence was destroyed without their consent or encounter Byzantine procedural barriers to justice," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who introduced the federal bill. "This bill represents an important step toward a system that mirrors unsparing prosecution of people who commit these heinous offenses with sensitive, consistent, and fair treatment of survivors."

In Minnesota, what happens after medical personnel use swabs, vials, combs and clippers to collect a bag of biological evidence from a victim varies by county.

Hospitals should hand victims a brochure detailing their rights, financial assistance and other resources, but that often doesn't happen, said Jeanne Ronayne, executive director of MNCASA.

Some hospitals in Minnesota keep the kits if victims don't want to file a crime report. Others send them to police for holding.

A kit could be stored at the hospital anywhere from 30 days to 18 months, Palmer said.

Some departments, such as the St. Paul police, cleaned house and shipped all untested kits to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, while others, including the Anoka County Sheriff's Office and Duluth Police Department, save every shred of evidence.

Duluth Police Lt. Mike Ceynowa told the Star Tribune in December that if a victim doesn't consent to testing the kit, his department doesn't test it.

"It's important for law enforcement to respect women's rights to say 'I don't want to move forward on this,' " Ceynowa previously said.

Billing for exams

It took one victim almost two years after Hennepin County Medical Center billed her for the exam and garnished her tax refund before she was reimbursed. The Star Tribune does not publicly identify alleged victims of sexual assaults unless they do so themselves.

After her ex-husband assaulted her in 2013, she had fallen behind financially and needed the refund to pay bills, she said.

In the MNCASA study, more than half of professionals interviewed said they knew of patients being charged for exams.

In a letter to health care providers last week, Attorney General Lori Swanson reminded them that billing rape victims violates the law.

"Victims of sexual assault have already suffered a heinous act, and the reason we have these state and federal laws is to protect victims from having to finance treatment," Swanson said. "I was very troubled with the thought that we have these laws out there to protect victims and that hospitals might not be complying with them."

Local initiatives and the federal bill hope to address inconsistencies and create standards for handling sexual assaults. Locally, there is discussion about appointing a state coordinator to oversee the billing of the exams, which would help clear up confusion and clarify proper practices.

"It was a giant pain," the victim said of getting reimbursed. "… Lots of giant hoops to go through."