Many sex­ual as­sault sur­vivors are un­aware of free le­gal help

Austin American-Statesman - - VIEWPOINTS - MIKE HENRY, SMITHWICK

Sex­ual as­sault is not just a crim­i­nal jus­tice is­sue. Sex­ual as­sault is a pub­lic health and hu­man rights is­sue that pro­foundly af­fects vic­tims, their loved ones and so­ci­ety.

Nearly 1 in 3 adult Tex­ans will ex­pe­ri­ence some form of sex­ual as­sault in their life­time. In more than 70 per­cent of sex­ual as­sault cases, the per­pe­tra­tor is some­one within the vic­tim’s cir­cle of trust — a fam­ily mem­ber, friend or co-worker. In all cases, the ex­pe­ri­ence is trau­matic and life-al­ter­ing.

Phys­i­cal in­juries are ac­com­pa­nied by emo­tional, le­gal and eco­nomic con­se­quences. Sur­vivors of­ten feel help­less, scared and ashamed. Some even blame them­selves and are re­luc­tant to re­port or pros­e­cute the as­sailant. And while try­ing to heal phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally, sur­vivors must also con­front le­gal is­sues that ex­tend far be­yond nav­i­gat­ing the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

Com­mon le­gal is­sues aris­ing in the af­ter­math of sex­ual as­sault in­volve safety and fam­ily vi­o­lence con­cerns, ac­cess to health in­sur­ance and dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits, time off un­der the Fam­ily and Med­i­cal Leave Act, im­mi­gra­tion pro­cesses, pri­vacy in­ter­ests, ed­u­ca­tional ef­fects, Crime Vic­tims’ Com­pen­sa­tion claims and hous­ing is­sues. Many sex­ual as­sault sur­vivors are un­aware that free le­gal help is just a phone call away.

As part of an an­nual em­pow­er­ment cam­paign, April is na­tion­ally rec­og­nized as Sex­ual As­sault Aware­ness Month. Among other ini­tia­tives this year, the Texas ju­di­ciary is work­ing with the Texas Ac­cess to Jus­tice Foun­da­tion to raise aware­ness that free le­gal help is avail­able through the Le­gal Aid for Sur­vivors of Sex­ual As­sault net­work.

By call­ing LASSA’s toll-free num­ber — 1-844-303-7233 (SAFE) — sur­vivors who qual­ify for le­gal aid can con­nect with ad­vo­cates who pro­vide free le­gal ad­vice and re­fer­ral to le­gal aid providers across the state. Through LASSA, sex­ual as­sault sur­vivors can ob­tain help with safety and fi­nan­cial con­cerns, in­clud­ing se­cur­ing a pro­tec­tive or­der; re­solv­ing child cus­tody, child sup­port and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence is­sues; en­sur­ing a safer work­ing, ed­u­ca­tional or hous­ing en­vi­ron­ment; and safe­guard­ing their pri­vacy.

Es­tab­lished in 2015, the LASSA ini­tia­tive was made pos­si­ble with $10 mil­lion in fund­ing from the 84th ses­sion of the Texas Leg­is­la­ture. With that fund­ing, the Texas Ac­cess to Jus­tice Foun­da­tion pro­vides grants to nine non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions through­out the state to pro­vide free le­gal ser­vices to sur­vivors of sex­ual as­sault. LASSA grantees pro­vide a range of free le­gal ser­vices; community, law en­force­ment and lead­er­ship train­ing; and other re­sources and ma­te­ri­als for sex­ual as­sault sur­vivors.

In ad­di­tion to le­gal ad­vice and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, LASSA has es­tab­lished re­la­tion­ships with do­mes­tic vi­o­lence shel­ters and rape cri­sis cen­ters across Texas, en­abling its providers to of­fer im­me­di­ate as­sis­tance in re­sponse to a call for help. LASSA ad­vo­cates also part­ner with col­leges and univer­si­ties to pri­or­i­tize sex­ual as­sault aware­ness and pre­ven­tion. LASSA lever­ages its aca­demic part­ner­ships to help en­sure fac­ulty and ad­min­is­tra­tors are re­spon­sive to al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual as­sault and un­der­stand their le­gal obli­ga­tions to sur­vivors.

In the short time since its found­ing, LASSA has pro­vided le­gal as­sis­tance to 4,500 sex­ual as­sault sur­vivors, serv­ing as a life­line that en­ables sur­vivors to pro­tect them­selves and move for­ward with their lives.

With con­tin­ued fi­nan­cial sup­port 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. For free ser­vices that pro­tect vic­tims and their fam­i­lies from the safety, fi­nan­cial and le­gal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of sex­ual vi­o­lence, just call 1-844-303-7233 (SAFE).

A net­work of ded­i­cated souls stands ready, will­ing and able to help.

Re: March 13 com­men­tary, “Le­gal­iz­ing drug im­por­ta­tion harms Texas’ pa­tients, econ­omy.”

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We should not al­low the

Re: March 15 ar­ti­cles, “Se­nate gives ini­tial OK to bath­room bill,” “Planned Par­ent­hood subs fal­ter­ing in Texas trial run,” “Are Austin’s ride-hail­ing rules headed for the bone­yard?”

The front page of the States­man ex­em­pli­fies the nar­row­minded fo­cus of our Leg­is­la­ture. Their con­stant de­mands to force down our throats their hate­ful opin­ions. The Texas gov­ern­ment ob­vi­ously does not be­lieve in our na­tion’s credo: “With lib­erty and jus­tice for all.” ... It’s time for the silent vot­ers to speak up.


House Speaker Joe Straus, lis­ten­ing to law­mak­ers dis­cuss an amend­ment at the Capi­tol in Jan­uary, has pro­posed dip­ping into the rainy day fund to meet bud­get needs.

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