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Sexual assault in Austin gets a face

Friday, July 27, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Sexual assault is not sufficiently studied, Kristen Lenau, SAFE response coordinator and Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team coordinator, told the Public Safety Commission at its July 2 meeting. In an effort to correct that, she, along with the Austin Police Department, worked with a three-year grant from the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women to conduct a study on sexual assault in Austin and Travis County. Although the sample size was small, the findings were big. Of those who participated, 51 were professionals who dealt with sexual assault cases – counselors, law enforcement, attorneys – and 24 were survivors of assault. “Actually, I feel pretty good about 24 considering there’s not much research in this area,” said Lenau. “There’s still so much stigma for victims coming forward.” According to the professionals, 94 percent do not believe the law addresses sexual assault adequately. At a more granular level, 40 percent of professionals said that “immigrants and undocumented survivors are the most underserved in this community,” according to Lenau. Regardless of the community they are serving, 59 percent of professionals said that access to funding and resources presented the biggest challenge to them offering satisfactory aid; two-thirds of them said that they did not have enough time with current staffing to complete their workloads. However, despite the lack of resources, 75 percent of interviewed survivors felt believed by the people investigating their case. According to Liz Donegan, a retired APD sergeant who led the Sex Crimes Unit for nine years, with sexual assault cases, the credibility of the victim is challenged from the moment that they report. Although there are many gaps when it comes to addressing sexual assault in Austin, Lenau told the commission that the greatest need that Austin’s SARRT has is for staffing. “We’re seeing huge numbers of people coming forward and even more with the #MeToo movement,” she explained. “We want our professionals to keep up.”

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