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Legal aid can help begin the process of healing for sexual assault survivors

by | Apr 15, 2021 | Opinion

The aftermath of sexual assault is painful and complicated to navigate. For the 6.3 million Texans who have experienced some form of sexual assault—33.2% of women and men—the experience comes with complex emotional, psychological and sociological repercussions. Exacerbating those adverse effects are physical injuries, legal issues and economic impacts that can be a constant reminder of a survivor’s trauma.

Often, external pressures make it hard for a victim to come forward and report abuse. Only 9% of sexual assault survivors report their experience to law enforcement, and of the abusers who are reported, only 3% are ever held legally accountable for their crimes. Many factors play into the under‑reporting of sexual‑assault crimes. Survivors of sexual assault may fear retaliation for reporting a perpetrator or may believe reporting the crime will be futile. In remaining silent, many survivors tell themselves no one will care enough to help them, and to cope with the trauma, they convince themselves the assault was tolerable. Further perpetuating the problem, some survivors may not know where to turn or how to report their assault. As a community, we must do more to support the survivors of this heinous and destructive crime, which affects people of all ages, genders, and socio‑economic strata.

To ensure victims of sexual assault know they have somewhere to get help in the aftermath of their abuse, we must work to break down the barriers that prevent them from reporting their perpetrator.

April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF) is sharing information about the availability of free legal help and other resources to help sexual assault survivors get back on steady ground through the Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault (LASSA) network. LASSA is a statewide, collaborative effort to ensure survivors have access to critical civil legal services from anywhere in Texas.

While some sexual assault cases are tried by the state in a criminal court, other cases fall into the civil legal system. Civil cases arise when survivors pursue legal action directly against their perpetrators. Civil cases also involve some of the little‑known collateral consequences of sexual assault including the necessity of addressing ongoing safety concerns. Sexual assault victims often need legal assistance for a host of civil legal issues such as obtaining protective and restraining orders; housing and employment issues; divorce and child custody/support issues; victim and public benefits; and assistance in seeking medical and psychological aid.

Help is just a phone call away. A statewide toll-free hotline––1-844-303-7233 (SAFE)––assists those who wish to remain anonymous. Calls are answered by specially trained, trauma-informed attorneys who listen as survivors tell their story and, when necessary, work through a safety plan with the caller.

Since the LASSA program’s inception in October 2015, the LASSA network of legal aid providers has closed more than 17,600 new cases involving survivors of sexual assault and human trafficking. The LASSA network has created several partnerships with domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers throughout the state. Special outreach efforts have also been made to colleges and universities, where sexual assaults and misconduct remain far too prevalent.

With continued funding from the Texas Legislature, a community of legal advocates across the state will remain available to assist sexual assault survivors with the challenges that lie ahead. A victim of sexual assault has already experienced too much pain and trauma. Making their journey to healing as easy as possible and dismantling barriers to reporting are LASSA’s top priority. On behalf of the Texas civil legal aid community, we thank LASSA for their continued work to help our fellow Texans who are survivors of sexual assault.

Eva Guzman has served as a justice of the Supreme Court of Texas since 2009. She is the first Latina to be elected to the high court and to statewide office in Texas and serves as the Texas Supreme Court’s liaison to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

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