Civil Legal Assistance for Survivors of Sexual Assault

Blog Post photo - SA BBRTIn the latest edition of LAF’s Brownbag Roundtable series, LAF attorneys spoke yesterday about the Comprehensive Legal Assistance for Survivors Project (CLASP), a collaboration between LAF, Pillars, and YWCA Evanston/North Shore that offers comprehensive legal assistance to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.

“50% of sexual violence victims quit or are forced to leave their jobs in the year following their assault,” said Cynthia Sadkin, LAF’s Director of Client and Community Services. “A victim who knows her rights—and gets help to enforce them—has a better chance of keeping her job, her health insurance, and being able to pay the rent and keep utilities on.”

Sexual assault is traditionally addressed within a criminal context, or in the limited civil context of suing for damages—which is only viable if the perpetrator has money and the defendant has access to legal representation. But sexual assault is vastly underreported, undercharged, and rarely results in conviction—and when survivors do come forward, they’re too often left in limbo during a long investigatory process. In Cook County for example, it takes 4-6 months to get initial biological evidence results and a full year for the actual DNA analysis to be completed. In the meantime, survivors may be left with unaddressed safety concerns and trauma that impacts their stability—especially in cases of intimate partner sexual assault. “Given that upwards of 90% of victims know their abuser either intimately or casually, they have a whole other set of barriers when they’re looking for help,” explained Supervisory Attorney Neha Lall. “They’re less likely to report, more likely to blamed and more likely to be scrutinized.”

But through programs like CLASP, LAF is taking a more innovative approach: using civil legal remedies to keep survivors safe and address their needs. “This is a new conversation for civil legal service providers,” Neha said. “This has challenged us as a legal services agency to look beyond our traditional models that focused primarily on family law needs, and step up to address the many other civil legal needs of sexual assault victims.” Such needs range from access to Orders of Protection and safe housing, to time off work to address trauma through counseling.

“Our jobs as advocates is to help them understand that there are other forms of justice available on the civil legal side as well,” said Senior Attorney Nubia Willman. As part of LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, she works with sexual assault survivors who may be eligible for certain types of immigration relief like a U visa, available to victims of crimes that have cooperated with law enforcement. “These clients come to us in the midst of a crisis, concerned more about their immediate safety than their immigration status,” she noted. “My job is to present the big picture—to let them know they may be eligible for this remedy if they work with law enforcement. Because in the long term, getting stable immigration status will empower them to change the trajectory of their life in a substantial way.” With attorneys working together to help sexual assault survivors with such a wide range of legal matters, it’s clear where CLASP gets its name.

Staff Attorney Myka Held shared the story of former client Sarah, a high-school student who was sexually assaulted on her way home from school by a group of 13 boys, most of whom were classmates. After reporting the assault, she felt unsafe both at school and at home since some of her attackers lived nearby. Since Sarah lived in public housing, attorneys from LAF’s Housing Practice Group advocated for her family to be transferred to another neighborhood, while Myka and the Children & Families Practice Group focused on getting her back to school. They requested a safety transfer through the public school system and helped her get some accommodations in place, such as an escort between classes to make sure she feels safe. Unfortunately, Sarah’s new school failed to take her trauma or safety concerns seriously, so LAF advocated for her to be placed in a therapeutic day school that would better suit her needs. She was able to move into a new apartment and started at her new school earlier this year.

“But that wasn’t the end of our legal advocacy,” said Myka. “We felt the public school system had not handled her complaint with any sensitivity or care,” so LAF filed a Title IX complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which is now investigating Sarah’s former school district based on her case.

“One of the great things about CLASP is that we’re able to work closely not just with the attorneys we typically work, but also with attorneys from other practice groups,” said Staff Attorney Karen Doran. “It’s great to be able to collaborate that way.”

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