By Gabriela Vega
While Bill Cosby works to restore his legacy by apparently refusing to go away after escaping numerous sexual assault charges by virtue of a hung jury, we need to establish new and better practices for victims.
Sexual assault survivors who step forward face being re-traumatized, much like the woman assaulted by Stanford swimmer Brock Allen Turner. They’re likely to suffer from suicidal or depressive thoughts afterward, use drugs at a higher rate than most, and face conflicts with family, friends and co-workers.
We need to shift the focus away from one man’s experience to survivors seeking accountability in the face of emotional trauma and isolation, cultural bias against their credibility, and the impact such assaults can have on work and school. Instead of hearing from Cosby, here’s a top 8 list of what needs to happen now:
- Make trauma experts affordable and accessible to prosecutors and legal aid attorneys who represent low-income sexual assault survivors in civil matters.
- Routinely integrate social workers into police departments and ensure that police officers, prosecutors, and civil legal aid attorneys are trained on trauma-informed interviewing.
- More states need to enact employment protections that prohibit job discrimination and retaliation against survivors. To best protect their employment rights, survivors should disclose their status to avoid being fired for performance issues or absences that can occur when they are recovering or pursuing a case against their aggressor. But as the federal law currently stands, survivors’ jobs and privacy are only protected after such a disclosure under gender or disability discrimination theories. The ABA recently reported that 86 percent of low-income citizens’ legal needs are not met; for a low-wage worker, proving gender discrimination and disparate impact on top of an assault claim is overwhelming to say the least.
- Provide paid leave for sexual assault survivors who require time off for mental health, or to cooperate with criminal investigations or civil cases; this is especially important for our low-income survivors.
- Stop using local police departments as federal enforcement agents so undocumented immigrant survivors feel safe to report.
- Stop immigration agents from conducting enforcement operations at local courthouses so undocumented survivors feel safe cooperating with a criminal investigation or seeking justice through the civil system.
- Stop the eviction of crime victims who report criminal activity to the police.
- Strengthen privilege rules that protect communications between sexual assault advocates and service providers at rape crisis centers and similar agencies. Advocates are on the front line of responding to sexual assault, but in Texas, their confidential communications must be disclosed in response to a lawful subpoena issued in any criminal investigation or subpoena. Because of the risk of compromising survivors’ privacy, sexual assault providers typically do not keep records, which impedes their ability to provide services.
Gabriela Vega, a Dallas Public Voices Fellow, is a staff attorney with the Equal Justice Center, a non-profit law firm dedicated to enforcing the labor and employment rights of low-income people, regardless of immigration status. She currently leads a new legal services project focused on combating workplace sexual violence and the adverse effects that sexual violence can have on survivors’ economic independence.