Legal Aid, Sexual Assault Advocacy Fund team up to support UVA victims

Legal Aid attorney Palma Pustilnik and Sexual Assault Advocacy Fund founder Lisa Richey. Staff Photo Legal Aid attorney Palma Pustilnik and Sexual Assault Advocacy Fund founder Lisa Richey. Staff Photo

As University of Virginia grad Lisa Richey read the now retracted Rolling Stone article on sexual assault at UVA last November, she felt compelled to do something to make a difference. On an impulse just hours after the story’s publication, she launched an online fundraiser with the general but somewhat undefined goal of providing independent legal counsel to victims of sexual assault at the university.

“I don’ t know how to change rape culture,” she said at the time. “But I can probably find an attorney somebody can call when they get home and just talk through this with.”

Six months later, it’s clear Richey’s impulse was shared by others concerned with the plight of UVA sexual assault victims, who for years have described feeling let down by an administrative adjudication system that’s mired in federal requirements and has increasingly come under fire from victim advocates, despite repeated efforts by the school to revise the policies that govern it.

In the months since the Rolling Stone article ran, Richey raised $32,000 and has now converted that online effort into an official nonprofit called the Sexual Assault Advocacy Fund that has partnered with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.

“With 501(c)(3) status, the donations are now tax deductible,” said Richey, who’s set a $500,000 fundraising goal—enough, she figures, to operate for five years. Richey said that Legal Aid attorney Palma Pustilnik’s experience with sexual assault victims at UVA made her a natural fit for a partnership with the nonprofit, and the first order of business is to hire a full-time administrator with a background working in the field of sexual assault who can serve as an intake coordinator. That person will be available to offer immediate guidance to victims about what steps to take—a physical examination at UVA immediately following a sexual assault is often critical to a criminal prosecution, for instance—and can also connect them with Pustilnik, who for years has helped usher victims through either the legal system or through UVA’s administrative process for adjudicating sexual assault.

Legal Aid already provides significant support to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in the Charlottesville community, Pustilnik said, and has long represented victims who might otherwise not qualify for free legal assistance. Clients are assessed only on their own personal income, she explained, so a victim who is married to a high earner but who doesn’t have her own personal income can qualify, as can students whose parents are wealthy but who don’t have their own income.

Pustilnik, who also represents  “Jackie,” the woman at the center of the Rolling Stone article, declined to comment about her client, and said she hopes the new partnership with Richey’s nonprofit will increase the number of victims who seek legal counsel following an assault.

“This is a way to expand my bandwidth,” she said. “I’m not doing anything different, just making people more aware of it.”

At UVA, news of the partnership and the additional resource for victims is welcome.

“It offers more options,” said Emily Renda, a UVA alum who has worked at the university as a sexual assault prevention advocate both before her 2014 graduation and in the year since. “It’s nice to give people the flexibility to have assistance from someone external to the community,” she said. “Having additional options is never bad.”