Leaving an abusive relationship is far more complicated than you may imagine. Since 1982, Austin-based Texas Advocacy Project has provided free legal services to victims of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and stalking, helping them move out of harm’s way and stay there.
Physical safety, financial insecurity, child custody concerns, shame, and self-doubt make getting out of intimate partner violence and abusive relationships difficult, and far too rare.
Even when partners leave a dangerous situation, without legal help, they or their children are often still at risk. Texas Advocacy Project is there for these victims–mostly women, many with children.
Texas Advocacy Project is “small but mighty.” In 2018 alone, the staff of only 13 attorneys were able to close 4,313 cases. The free legal solutions impacted the lives of more than 10,000 women and children survivors. Those numbers are as impressive as the team is capable and compassionate!
Literal Lifeline for Families
Executive Director Heather Bellino spoke with me to explain some of the ways Texas Advocacy Project provides legal services to Texas survivors of domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.
She also spoke about some of the fundraising/awareness/advocacy events the nonprofit holds throughout the year and how to get involved. The next fundraising event will be a Kentucky Derby Watch Party at W Austin.
What Texas Advocacy Project Does
The free legal counsel and support Texas Advocacy Project offers survivors every step of the way enables victims to escape dangerous situations, moving themselves and their families into a new life where they can be safe.
For victims stuck in a violent relationship, the first step is often a phone call asking about their legal rights, advice, and community resources available to help them. Texas Advocacy Project answers their questions and lets them know, most importantly, that they have options.
The organization’s “unbundled legal services” are always free to these victims across Texas.
Assisted Pro Se (Self-representation)
For many people reaching out to Texas Advocacy Project, this is likely the first time they realize they’re not alone and have resources available to them at little to no cost. Often, the community resources may be overextended, and Texas Advocacy Project can step in and aid the victim getting started with matters such as restraining orders.
When a victim has already arrived at a relatively safe place in the process, Texas Advocacy Project attorneys take on the Assisted Pro Se role and act as the “invisible lawyer.” The appointed attorney drafts court documents, files them, and walks the victim through the process, step-by-step.
This detailed hand-holding and advocating includes giving clients a heads-up on what a judge may ask in court. Attorneys may even aid in how to respond, in order to get the best legal outcome based on the victim’s particular case and needs.
Some acting attorneys stand at the client’s side throughout the entire case. According to Bellino, these cases usually involve an ongoing security issue, are hotly contested (usually involving custody), or there is a short turnaround for a court date or crucial decision.
Texas Advocacy Project also accepts direct representation cases according to its stated justice agenda. This means the organization will accept a case when representing one person now has the potential to change the way other cases are handled down the road.
For example, under Texas’s indigency law, people who cannot afford to pay court costs do not have to pay them. But in certain counties, court costs may still be charged. Under the justice agenda, Texas Advocacy Project will represent the person being asked to pay. As a result, the county or district has to change the way they’re dealing with these cases.
How You Can Help
“The greatest gift someone can give us is to be a part of this,” explained Bellino. Most of Texas Advocacy project’s cases are running under a high level of secrecy and protection. The relevant laws are complex and specific. Therefore, “being a part of this” means attending or planning a fundraiser, or an educational or prevention training event.
Texas Advocacy Project is working to stretch its meager resources to get the best possible results for clients. Throughout the year, the nonprofit hosts events. The recent Handbags for Hope is a campaign to collect new or gently used handbags, fill them with information on Texas Advocacy Project services, and deliver them to women in shelters.
The upcoming Kentucky Derby Watch Party is at W Austin on the screened-in porch. Tickets include a Ben Milam Whiskey tasting, complimentary mint julep, live music, and Goorin Bros. hat pop-up. And of course, guests will be able to watch the Kentucky Derby on the big screen. Tickets are a deal at $25 each.
Contact Texas Advocacy Project to plan an educational event at your workplace or school.
If Someone You Know Asks for Help
Bellino emphasizes the importance of telling victims these three things:
- I believe you.
- There are resources available to you.
- When you are ready, we’ll get you the help and resources you need.
Domestic or dating violence, now legally known under the umbrella term “intimate partner violence,” often goes unseen or unreported. Societal norms or fear keep many women from reaching out.
Only two percent of intimate partner violence victims ever make it to legal remedies. Texas Advocacy Project is working to change that. It’s “one of Austin’s best-kept secrets that shouldn’t be a secret anymore,” said Bellino. Survivor clients carry around their secrets, often for years. Their stories need to be told.
If you or someone you know needs to know their rights and resources, or get counsel or legal advice, call Texas Advocacy Project at 800-374-HOPE.
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