Protecting Survivors of Sexual Assault and Abuse

Over the course of my career as an attorney, I have had my share of experience with sexual assault cases.  In 2015, I was a junior member of a four-person legal team that, served a client named Bill Cosby. Yes, that Bill Cosby.  I was a part of a team that aimed to protect a nondisclosure agreement entered into years ago, before I was even a lawyer. I have served hundreds of clients in my time as an attorney, some innocent, some guilty, and some somewhere in between. Every person who stands accused of a crime is entitled to legal counsel, and that constitutional right is something I take very seriously.

As an assistant district attorney, I protected victims of assault and prosecuted the perpetrators of those crimes.  I’ll never forget one Tuesday morning as I sat in a conference room holding an assault victim in my arms as she shook with fear about the testimony she was about to give in open court before her attacker.  I’ll never forget her pain, or her bravery.

I have had a lot of time to reflect about the role I want to have in protecting victims of sexual assault and harassment, whether as a father, a husband, an educator, a legislator, or a private citizen.

I have watched in awe over the past year as victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment have taken ownership of their stories to enact real, systemic change for current and future victims. I’m moved and inspired by their efforts to reclaim their autonomy. They deserve a better system and society than what we currently offer to them.

The power that survivors have created for themselves should be amplified, not questioned. It should be supported, not undermined by failed policies, unfunded mandates, and false tropes about their victimization in the news media.

In Pennsylvania alone, there are 1,214 untested rape kits. These specimens represent the retraumatization of sexual assault survivors doing everything they can on the worst day of their lives to seek justice - not just for themselves but for future victims of their perpetrator. These rape kits should not go untested for months or years at a time, but this is our reality, a reality we must address in Harrisburg.

We can decriminalize things like the individual use of marijuana so we can finally give the focus these survivors deserve to their justice. We can stop giving corporations tax breaks they do not need and fund the programs necessary to end this backlog. These are all things that legislators have failed to address in Harrisburg.

On college campuses, women are at an elevated risk of sexual assault, through absolutely no fault of their own. According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, 11.2% of all students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. The risk for college-age students skyrockets whether or not they attend college, but we send our kids to expensive college programs to potentially be raped by their classmates, their neighbors, or their professors. We adults have done very little to stem the tide of this epidemic.

We can start when our kids are young, incorporating consent into things like play time and ensuring that consent is at the core of any sexual education class that is provided in our schools. We can communicate with our children about lots of awkward conversations so that when they find a romantic partner, they feel empowered rather than ashamed to advocate for what they want, when they want it, and nothing more or less.

Domestic violence is at the core of criminal legal work, of police work, and the work of counseling professionals, and we’ve done so little to protect victims of domestic violence. Every Thursday in Delaware County, victims flock to the courthouse in Media to seek a protection from abuse order from a judge. There is an entire courtroom dedicated to this purpose, every week. Some of these plaintiffs have children, and all of them are terrified of what might happen if this piece of paper doesn’t ultimately protect them. Sometimes that piece of paper does nothing, and too many of them will die at the hands of current or former romantic partners. Many of them speak up and do hundreds of things to get the help they need, and we fail them every day.

We need to stop promoting false narratives that have no basis in reality. Rape and sexual assault survivors are brave and powerful, and they come in all genders, in all sexual orientations, in all ages and can have their autonomy snatched from them in any variety of settings. Although men are so often the culprits of this horrific behavior, women and gender non-binary people can be the culprits and men can be the victims. Survivors of this abuse sometimes come forward right away and sometimes never come forward. Their experiences are no less real if they do not come forward. When a survivor doesn’t come forward, that should be a signal to all of us that we can create better systems to reestablish the trust they deserve. It should not be a cue to paint them as liars. Our policies should address the disparities among the impoverished, the LGBTQ community, and people of color so that all victims are served.

We are at a crossroads in this work. There has never been a time where sexual violence has been more on display for us to address than right now. We have a president who brags openly about sexually assaulting women while simultaneously erasing the experiences of victims as if this doesn’t happen every day. Trump is working to give a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court to someone who has been credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple women. In both chambers of the state legislature I am running to join, there are men credibly accused of sexual harassment, sexual assault, forcible rape, and threats of attempted murder, who sit in those hallowed halls without any real consequences. There isn’t a single day I don’t think about the weight of that, of the survivors in my district, in my family, on my staff, who walk around in a world where their experiences are not recognized, where their humanity is not made whole.

We need to talk about solutions, and that is what I will continue to do for the rest of this campaign. We have had far too few solutions enacted in Harrisburg, and I promise to fight for you, in office or as your neighbor.

We have so much more to do.  Let’s get to it.

Friends of Mike Zabel