ST. PAUL — Saying it can take years to investigate allegations of sexual assault within the Minnesota National Guard, state lawmakers are seeking to streamline the process and help protect survivors within the Guard’s ranks.
Rep. Kelly Moller, D-Shoreview, told the House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 16 that under the state’s current system, sexual assault investigations are drawn out, and can be challenging due to the requirements from local law enforcement and the military. Moller’s House File 295 seeks to streamline that process for survivors, and has the backing of the National Guard as well as the state Dept. of Military Affairs.
Three women who currently serve or previously served in the Minnesota National Guard told their stories to the committee on Tuesday, describing the years-long process of reporting their assaults and what happened afterward.
One former Guard member, Bonnie Daniels, told the committee she was sexually assaulted by her master sergeant in January 2016. “The assault changed everything” for her, she said.
“I blamed myself,” she continued. “I told myself things like, ‘It’s my fault; I had a drink with him. I should have known better. Nobody actually cares about me. Nobody will believe me. I’m annoying people. I’m crazy. People will think I’m overreacting. I can’t trust anybody. Men only want me for sex. I’m not good enough. I’m worthless, a nobody.”
Daniels said the investigation into her assault ultimately took two years. Throughout the investigation, she said, “These feelings of guilt and shame haunted me (...) as well as the sickness in my stomach hearing I wasn’t the only one.”
“When it comes to someone’s life, every second counts,” she said. “Two years is too long.”
Under the state’s current procedure, it’s local law enforcement who have to initiate an investigation into a report of sexual assault within the Minnesota National Guard; it’s later that the Guard, itself then begins investigating. Moller, as well as National Guard sexual assault response coordinator John Thompson, told the committee that this process can get drawn out, and is inconsistent based on which local agency is investigating.
If passed into law, Moller’s bill would task the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to launch the investigations instead. The BCA has greater resources across the whole state, proponents said, and centralizing the investigatory unit would help resolve inconsistencies. Basic logistical challenges — like when local officers have to travel throughout Minnesota’s large geography to speak to survivors, accused perpetrators and eyewitnesses — could be answered.
Executive Director Don Kerr told the committee the state Dept. of Military Affairs typically remains neutral on legislation, but HF 295 was an exception.
“We really strongly support this bill because we think it will close a critical gap that we have in conducting timely investigations that we can then use to discipline the National Guard and help protect our service members in this area of great concern,” he said.
The bill has more legislative hoops to jump through before it reaches the House floor for a vote, but the lawmakers who spoke during Tuesday’s hearing voiced their support for it.
HF 295 is just one of several bills being heard this week put forward by advocates of sexual assault survivors. The committee on Tuesday passed a bill that would require hospice care workers to be notified if they are caring for a person on Minnesota’s predatory offenders list. Another would grant amnesty from drug or alcohol charges to survivors, or those helping them, when reporting a sexual assault.