Texas Legal Services Center's Assertion of Rights Work Gives a Voice to Victims

The legal aid organization empowers survivors

Erin Martinson (Photo by Jana Birchum)

In 2017, the Texas Legal Services Center, a statewide nonprofit that fills in justice gaps for vulnerable Texans, began offering formal assertion of rights support for victims of violent crimes. Though some national programs work to educate folks about victims' rights, TLSC has become one of the first organizations to consistently offer this service.

Oftentimes, victims of crimes – ranging from sexual assault and domestic violence to stalking and sex trafficking – are unaware of the rights granted to them under Chapter 56 of the Texas Code of Crim­inal Procedure. Erin Martinson, who helped formalize TLSC's assertion of rights work alongside former Travis County Assistant District Attorney Dana Nelson, explained that while prosecutors are "expected to uphold all victims' rights, some have to be formally asserted because of the way the statute is written. But nobody is telling a victim how to do this."

Martinson, who announced her run for Travis County District Attorney on July 9 (see "Erin Martinson’s Entry Heats Up D.A. Primary Race," July 10), joined TLSC as the managing attorney for the statewide organization's Advocates for Victims of Crime program in the summer of 2016. A few months later, after newly elected D.A. Margaret Moore let go 27 employees, Nelson joined Martinson at TLSC. Separ­ately, the two have spent more than 15 years working within the criminal justice system to support sexual assault and family violence survivors, so Martinson said it was no surprise when survivor advocates started referring people to them for help.

"Not long after the new [District Attorney] administration took office, we started getting requests from advocates [whose clients were] concerned that their cases weren't being taken seriously," explained Martinson. Others, she noted, were frustrated because they hadn't received an update on their case. In the last few years, local law enforcement and the District Attorney's Office have come under fire for alleged neglect and mistreatment of sexual assault cases; this came to a head last summer when eight survivors filed a federal class action lawsuit against the city, county, D.A.'s Office, and local law enforcement.

With TLSC's support and the pair's intimate knowledge of the criminal justice system, Martinson and Nelson devised a service that lets TLSC employees work as "go-betweens" for victims to better communicate with prosecutors and law enforcement. Nelson, using the criminal procedure code, created an assertion of rights document – a checklist that details the rights warranted to victims of sexual assault, kidnapping, aggravated robbery, trafficking, and injury to a child or elderly or disabled person, as well as survivors of attempted homicide. Upon a client's request, TLSC's team files the assertion of rights and shares it with the prosecutor and the defense attorney on the case. The amount of time and work spent on the case remains largely up to the client; sometimes it's simply a matter of tracking down the status of an investigation, but typically, said Martinson, "What they want is support through the process," which can take up to five years in some cases.

Though TLSC was doing similar work before Martinson and Nelson were brought on, Executive Director Karen Miller said they "certainly brought a level of experience" to the team. Miller also stressed the importance of victim advocacy, noting that most people don't have a good understanding of their legal rights. "Victims are frequently lost in the system, and they need a voice to help them stand out."

While assertion of rights work is largely intended to ensure victims are supported and looped into the happenings of their cases, Martinson said it also supports prosecutors who are tasked with enforcing the law and keeping the community safe. "Their role is not to represent the victims individually," said Martinson, noting that prosecutors throughout the state are overloaded with cases. "It can benefit the prosecution, and that's our intent," Martinson continued. "We want them to know [that] the victim wants to cooperate and we're here to help facilitate that."

As legal victim advocates, the TLSC team becomes the storyteller, so that survivors don't have to repeatedly share their stories. They also help manage clients' expectations. Martinson recalled one case where her client "felt very strongly that [her assailant] should go to jail for this. We had to say, 'That's probably not going to happen.'" But as experts in trauma-informed communication, Martinson said, the assertion of rights team can help relay information to victims without, hopefully, retraumatizing them in the process. TLSC also leads law enforcement and prosecutor trainings throughout the state on how trauma can affect a victim's ability to participate in a case, which Miller said is a "huge part" of the team's work.

Outside of Travis County, Martinson confessed, she gets a "prickly" response from prosecutors upon first contact, but added that they come around quickly. "They'd say, 'You're going to keep my victim in a place I need her to be,' which is engaged, cooperative, and calm." Working with the Travis County D.A.'s Office, Martinson said, was a bit "trickier." In response, the D.A.'s Office told the Chronicle that it "supports any non-profit agency whose mission is to provide services to crime victims and to assist them within the criminal justice system."

While Martinson and Nelson have both left TLSC – though Martinson is still offering trainings on assertion of rights and believes that "a lot of people will start picking up this work" – the organization continues to offer its services to victims. Looking at the bigger picture, Miller said, the silencing of victims is a statewide issue, but assertion of rights advocates can help victims find their voice. "It gives them [back] some of the power and control ... that was taken from them in the first place."

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assertion of rights, Erin Martinson, Texas Legal Services Center, Dana Nelson, Karen Miller, Travis County District Attorney's Office, Margaret Moore, victim advocacy, victims' rights

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