Garza: Empowering sexual assault victims means informing about options

Across the country, April marks Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, a 30-day campaign that aims to raise awareness on how to prevent sexual violence.

Sexual assault is a horrific crime and, chances are, we all know someone who has been affected by it. Nearly one in three Texans will experience sexual assault in their lifetime, with women being twice as likely to be victimized as men. More than 70 percent of survivors will know the perpetrator before the assault — they will be a friend, acquaintance, co-worker, or even a family member.

Sexual violence creates an environment of fear, anger, and anxiety on campuses, in workplaces, and in neighborhoods where it occurs. Sadly, many survivors find themselves revictimized as they pursue the support and justice they deserve. These feelings can be debilitating; thankfully, there are people that can help.

With the support of funding from the Texas legislature, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid recently launched its Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault Project (LASSA) to provide survivors with free legal services in the aftermath of an assault. LASSA works directly with partner agencies, such as local rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, to provide these services.

According to data from the Texas Department of Public Safety, more than 980 sexual assaults were reported in the Austin area in 2014. A 2015 study from the University of Texas estimates that less than 10 percent of victims report their assault to law enforcement. Through partnerships with eight Austin-area crisis centers and shelters, the LASSA Project ensures that survivors have access to free legal services from the moment they turn to a crisis center or shelter for help.

Few people may realize that the legal issues following a sexual assault go beyond holding a perpetrator accountable through the criminal justice system. Empowering survivors means giving them the tools to stand up for themselves and ensuring that they know their legal rights after an assault.

For example, in the aftermath of an assault, survivors have the right to ensure their own safety, seek medical attention, obtain assistance from a local crisis center or shelter and decide whether or not to pursue police involvement. Enforcing many legal rights may require the assistance of an attorney. Survivors may need help safeguarding private information such as health records, breaking a lease or ensuring their safety by filing for a protective order. Many survivors may find themselves unable to work or attend school and a lawyer can help access support services and public benefits to help. Survivors who are married to the perpetrator may need legal assistance protecting themselves and their children by filing for divorce, pursuing child custody or child support, or even changing their name.

A large part of addressing a culture of sexual violence is supporting survivors in the aftermath of an assault. Through the relationships formed with local domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers, the LASSA Project aims to make a profound impact on the resources available to survivors.

This April, as part of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, the LASSA Project is working alongside domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, and victims rights groups to educate communities on how to combat family violence. We invite you to join us in this effort. And for survivors seeking the tools to reclaim their lives, know that we are here to help.

Garza is the victim rights group coordinator and an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. More information on the Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault Project can be found online at

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