A sexual assault legislation prompted by the allegations againt the late Robert E. Anderson, former University of Michigan physician, was reintroduced on Feb.19. State Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, and state Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit, reintroduced Michigan’s Empowering Survivors package to the House of Representatives, which is aimed at expanding opportunities for victims of sexual assault in pursuing justice.

The survivor-centered justice package was originally introduced in September 2020 at a press conference on the steps of the Michigan Capitol Building. However, the bills were not voted on before the end of last year because the pandemic pushed the legislature’s schedule back and delayed looking at any bills unrelated to COVID-19. In December, Berman and Whitsett announced their plan to reintroduce the bipartisan package in 2021.

The package is composed of two bills. The first is a government immunity reform bill to prevent institutions from claiming immunity when abuse or assault occurs under the guise of medical care and the institution was aware of such abuse taking place. 

The second is a statute of limitations reform bill, which will create a one-year window from the time the laws are passed for victims to file a suit that they were abused under the guise of medical care, regardless of the three-year statute of limitations during which survivors must file to allege personal injury. This bill is similar to the 90-day window given to survivors of Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics physician.

In February 2020, the University announced its investigation into Anderson following allegations of sexual abuse. Anderson worked at the University from the late 1960s to early 2000s as director of the University Health Service and spent years as a top physician for U-M athletics. Since the University’s announcement, more than 100 lawsuits have been filed against the University regarding Anderson, including one class-action suit on behalf of former students who claim that Anderson sexually abused them during medical examinations. University Regent Ron Weiser (R) also accused Anderson of sexually assaulting him while he was a student in the 1960s.

In a video announcing the reintroduction of the Empowering Survivors package, Berman explained the importance of the bills and his determination to ensure that victims feel comfortable coming forward.

“It’s a year later, but Dr. Anderson’s survivors are still seeking justice,” Berman said. “We have not wavered in our very important support of this issue and we fully expect this legislation to receive hearings at some point this year.”

LSA sophomore Ceciel Zhong, an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, weighed in on the bipartisan support that the legislative package has received so far.

“Sexual assault and abuse shouldn’t be a partisan problem at all,” Zhong said. “I think that focusing on justice for survivors is not a partisan problem, but a human rights problem to ensure that survivors get the support that they deserve.”

Zhong said the proposed bill would give survivors more time and flexibility to seek justice.

“I think it will help to provide more time for survivors because it extends the statute of limitations,” Zhong said. “It will definitely help to bring more justice to survivors.”

This package is especially personal for Whitsett, who said in the reintroduction video she is a survivor of sexual violence but never reported it out of fear. Whitsett said she hopes these bills will help survivors moving forward in holding their abusers accountable.

“As a survivor myself, I am proud to reintroduce these bills,” Whitsett said. “We will see this process out to the end.”

When initially announcing the Empowering Survivors legislation in September 2020, Whitsett commented on the unfortunate regularity of survivors fearing the consequences of reporting their experience.

“It takes years for a victim traumatized by sexual assault to address this before they come forward to report the crime if they ever do,” Whitsett said. “Fear of negative impact on career, reputation, their interpersonal relationships — they factor against reporting the assault.” 

The U-M Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center declined to comment, as they did not believe it was appropriate with litigation pending and the independent investigation into Anderson still ongoing.

Daily Staff Reporter Kate Weiland can be reached at kmwblue@umich.edu.

 

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