Texas Moves to Protect Sexual Violence Survivors
By Veronica Apodaca
Texas organizations and lawmakers have seen victories in their work helping victims of sexual violence. Several laws were passed in 2021, including a law that strengthens civil protective orders against abusers and a measure that creates sexual assault reponse teams to help victims.
Stop Abuse for Everyone Alliance, SAFE, and the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, TAASA, actively supported the new laws. The SAFE Alliance exists to serve the survivors of child abuse, sexual assault and exploitation and domestic violence by providing free services, including housing, counseling and legal services for abuse survivors. TAASA is a state-wide coalition of survivors, advocates, rape crisis centers and allied professionals working to eliminate sexual violence.
“Our organization has been around for 40 years, and public policy is one of our organizational mandates from our membership, and so we seek to push for policy solutions every session,” Kristen Leneau, the senior policy advisor for TAASA, said.
The organizations lobbied and worked with lawmakers and the governor’s office to ensure that the bills they deemed essential for sexual assault survivors would pass. According to TAASA’s website, five of the six priorities the group brought to the Legislature were passed this year, making it one of the organization’s most successful.
One of the bills that passed was House Bill 39, which strengthens civil protective orders preventing abusers from interacting with victims.
“The COVID pandemic has laid bare the many realities that are faced by families, women, and children in abusive households,” Rep. Victoria Neave (D-Dallas), the bill’s author, said during a Texas House Committee meeting in March.
Advocates hope the bill will create more comprehensive protections for survivors working in tandum with law passed in 2019 that provides telehealth services to survivors who do not have a sexual assault nurse examiner in their area.
“Our experience does show what an impact a well-trained, trauma-informed SANE (sexual assualt nurse examiner) can have in providing compassionate, evidence-based healthcare, collecting evidence so the survivor’s account can be heard in court, and even in ameliorating trauma and reducing PTSD,” Piper Stege Nelson, the SAFE Alliance’s chief public strategies officer, told Reporting Texas via email.
During each legislative session, organizations such as TAASA and the SAFE Alliance begin by choosing the measures they want to focus on for the session. TAASA’s process involves surveys, focus groups and interviews with survivors, Leneau said. This allows members, which include rape crisis centers and other individuals and organizations who support their work, to have input on the issues that they feel are most pressing. TAASA also works alongside lawmakers to make sure these issues are heard by the legislature.
A persistent obstacle is the general public’s lack of awareness when it comes to the complexity of sexual violence, Leneau said. This extends to a lack of funding and resources to address the sexual assault.
Senate Bill 476 requires the creation of Sexual Assault Response Teams, or SARTs, around Texas. The goal of this bill is to address the gaps present in sexual response in communities throughout the state and providing survivors with a support system in the aftermath of sexual violence. Representatives Donna Howard and Victoria Neave, both Democrats, authored items for the task force, helping TAASA to push the bill through.
A sexual assault survivor testified in support of the HB 476 before a Texas Senate Committee in March. “It should not be the victim’s responsibility to make sure certain rights are made available to them after they are assaulted,” the survivor said. “The shock and violence of sexual assault leaves people at the mercy of our system.” The response teams formed under HB 476 would provide adult sexual assault victims the vital support they need, the survivor added.
TAASA worked extremely hard to get the SART bill and the civil protective orders bill passed, Leneau said. “We’re really excited to see the amount of questions and the amount of training requests that we’re getting on those two bills.”
Leneau believes that Texas is on the right track when it comes to protecting survivors of sexual violence. While the general public still has a lack of information regarding sexual violence, laws such as the ones that TAASA and the SAFE Alliance advocate for are helping to create discussions around a topic that is still commonly associated with shame and silence.
Based on success in 2021, Leneau is optimistic that Texas will continue to create positive change through legislation for sexual assault survivors.
“In terms of this issue, Texas does really well in legislative fixes, and I hope that that continues,” she said.