By Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva M. Guzman
As survivors of sexual assault begin to rebuild their lives, legal issues may arise that affect their safety, security, privacy and well-being. Coinciding with Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in April, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation has announced Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault (LASSA), a new and vital network of services now available to survivors of sexual assault in Texas who qualify for legal aid.
In Texas, one in five women and one in 20 men have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime, according to the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. Over 90 percent of Texans who have been sexually assaulted did not report to law enforcement.
Survivors now have access to a statewide toll-free number [1-844-303-7233 (SAFE)] to call for representation and referral to nine legal aid organizations who are partnering with domestic violence and rape crisis centers across Texas for community outreach, education, and referrals. This is the first statewide, collaborative effort to ensure critical civil legal services for survivors are available from anywhere in Texas.
Representation by legal aid programs, which have done an admirable job advocating for survivors in the domestic violence arena, has not been widely available for sexual assault survivors in Texas. Services delivered to sexual assault survivors in this manner are an emerging trend based on increased awareness and knowledge of the devastating effects of sexual assault on the whole of the victim. This level of trauma can be debilitating without trauma-informed, client-centered responses to every aspect of the person’s life. The civil legal challenges that arise are no different.
Last year, Texas legal aid programs helped more than 18,000 survivors of domestic violence obtain access to the justice system for civil legal problems. Unfortunately, many of these Texans are also victims of sexual abuse. The legal help provided to these survivors positively affected the lives of approximately 26,482 children and other family members who benefited from safe resolution to their issues. And still, more help is needed.
The LASSA initiative was made possible through $10 million in funding from the 84th Session of the Texas Legislature for the 2015-2017 biennium, and the funds are distributed by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation to grantees across the state.
The LASSA Network intends to serve every Texas county, providing survivors of sexual assault with a wide range of free legal services, from general advice to holistic, direct representation in civil legal matters stemming from the sexual assault. Survivors’ legal problems can include privacy violations, physical safety threats, school accommodations, employment sanctions, financial problems, and housing problems.
Each organization in the network has identified a niche for services. Some will be focusing on Title IX outreach, education, referrals and representation, and some will be tackling the consequences of survivors of human trafficking. Others will focus on basic needs like housing, employment, and education issues that arise from the aftermath of trauma.
Legal aid services can help survivors of sexual abuse—including victims of human trafficking—achieve safety, security and stability. These Texans deserve access to justice and information to help them on their road to recovery. Help is one free and confidential phone call away at 1-844-303-7233 (SAFE). Please help spread the word.
Justice Eva Guzman has been a member of the Supreme Court of Texas since 2009 and is the Court’s liaison to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation and the Texas Access to Justice Commission.
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