Travis D.A. Announces New Policies to Support Rape, Abuse Survivors

Erin Martinson, director of the Travis County D.A.’s Special Victims Unit, in 2019 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The Travis County District Attorney’s Office, led by José Garza, has announced a major shift in policies and practice to better support survivors of “interpersonal violence,” including domestic abuse and sexual assault.

Announced today (Friday, Feb. 25), the new policies will go into effect immediately, though some aspects, such as a new community advisory board, won’t be finalized for another month or two. The office’s three-page announcement highlights four areas of focus: Prioritize victims; ensure access to justice for all victims; collaborate with community advocates and experts; and improve transparency. Together, the changes are “designed to ensure that victims of interpersonal violence and complex trauma know that reporting their abuse or harm will not mean they are retraumatized, ignored, or accused of not being credible,” according to the announcement.

Garza told the Chronicle these policies were informed by meeting with and speaking to survivors of interpersonal violence and advocates. He added: “The process of listening to survivors and advocates is not a one time thing. For it to be real and meaningful it’s something we have to be committed to do consistently and we are.”

The new policies symbolize a change in direction for the D.A.’s Office, which Garza took over on January 1, following his defeat of incumbent Margaret Moore in the July 2020 Democratic primary run-off and his subsequent win over Republican Martin Harry in November. Erin Martinson, who finished third in the primary to force the run-off between Garza and Moore, now the director of the D.A.’s Special Victims Unit, which oversees the Family Violence Division, the Sexual Assault Division, and now also the office’s victim counselors, who support survivors of violence through the criminal justice process.

Previously, those victim counselors were staffed by the back-office Department of Operations, which largely handles finances and administration. To manage the new division under Martinson, Garza has hired Neva Fernandez, a national expert in providing trauma-informed services to victims and a longtime colleague of Martinson at both the Travis County Attorney’s Office and the Texas Legal Services Center. Garza explained, “We really feel like it’s important for victim counselors to be supervised by someone with subject-matter expertise, who has the experience and training to manage and assist them in day-to-day work.”

Going forward, counselors will be automatically assigned to certain cases involving interpersonal violence and complex trauma, which Martinson noted is a broad category; counselors are also automatically assigned to homicide cases. However, prosecutors working on all types of cases will be able to request counseling services for victims if needed or desired.

Among the new policies is a return, after nearly four years, to the Austin/Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT). This group coordinates community response to sexual assault, which includes advocates, attorneys, sexual assault nurse examiners, law enforcement officers, and others; Moore had abandoned the group after the D.A. and Austin Police Department’s handling of sexual assault cases, including the backlog of thousands of DNA evidence kits, was criticized in a letter by former SARRT leaders.

Such groups are considered a best practice for responding to domestic violence and sexual assault, as a way to identify gaps within the justice system’s procedures and services. As Martinson explained, it’s important for the D.A.’s Office to be at the table because “we prosecute the majority of crimes related to those issues.” Martinson, who previously served on the SARRT for several years, confirmed the office has been attending meetings since January.

“The process of listening to survivors and advocates is not a one time thing. For it to be real and meaningful it’s something we have to be committed to do consistently and we are.” – Travis County D.A. José Garza

“It’s core to our philosophy,” said Garza. “Expertise lies in many places. But first and foremost, it lies with regular people who’ve had experiences with our criminal justice system, [both] people who’ve been victims of crime and people who’ve been victims of our criminal justice system. We really believe that, as a result, all that we do has to be informed by our community.” In addition to returning to the SARRT and the similar Domestic Violence High Risk Team, the office has promised to work with community-based organizations to reinstate the practice of educating each new grand jury once it’s empaneled on the prevalence and dynamics of sexual and intimate partner violence.

As part of its policies to promote transparency, the office has promised to create an advisory board of survivors and others from the community, which will provide oversight and help hold the office accountable. Garza stressed how important it is for his team to hear what the office is doing wrong and what it can do better. This board, he said, “is at least one way that we seek to invite that analysis of our work.”

Martinson elaborated: “My vision for the community advisory board is also [to help us] look toward the future and alternatives to the carceral system. We know that the majority of victims don’t report their offenses.” According to a 2015 study from UT-Austin, only 9.2% of sexual assault survivors report attacks to law enforcement. “We need to start looking at alternatives for solutions that help all victims heal.”

The D.A.’s Office is working now and “hopes to make significant progress within a month or two” on launching the advisory board, said Garza. In the meantime, the office has begun trauma-informed training that addresses the dynamics of interpersonal violence, best practices for the use of expert witnesses, and the neurobiology of trauma, as well as bias trainings on anti-racism, race, gender, LGBTQIA issues, culture, and economic status.

Also announced this week: the return of Dana Nelson, one of the early leaders in building a specialized unit at the D.A.’s Office to prosecute sexual assault cases, to join Garza and Martinson’s leadership team. Nelson, whose expertise in prosecuting these complex cases helped bring $650,000 in federal grant funding to the office in 2016, has for the last several years been a prosecutor in Bell County.

As leader of the SVU, Martinson is responsible for implementing these policy changes, with support from Garza and his first assistant Trudy Strassburger. Martinson noted, “We have a very collaborative approach to leadership, so the entire senior leadership team has weighed in and provided feedback on our policies.”

Garza added that divisions outside the SVU also interact with victims on a regular basis, and so it’s a responsibility for the entire office to treat them with dignity and respect. He credited Martinson as the office’s “culture-setter in chief about how we approach victims in our office.”