Local, State Leaders: Culture Shift, Better Organization Needed to Address Domestic Violence

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Aracely Herrera cries after sharing her domestic violence experience as Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) translates from Spanish to English.

Domestic violence in San Antonio has reached epidemic levels, health experts, victim advocates, and community members said Tuesday – so what, they asked, can City, State, and federal leaders do to fight it?

The answer has several elements, according to various speakers that addressed the hundreds of people gathered at the Mennonite Church in Southtown for a first-of-its-kind town hall centered around domestic violence. Among those suggested were better data collection by law enforcement and nonprofits; easier-to-obtain protective orders for victims; more funding for shelters for battered women and families; stricter sentences for perpetrators; and better coordination between local and State law enforcement.

At the core of that list was simply listening to victims, a vast majority of whom are women – because that’s where leaders will see the life-and-death examples of the gaps in the law, process, and services surrounding the problem, several speakers said.

Congressmen Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio) and Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin) convened the town hall with the P.E.A.C.E. (Putting an End to Abuse through Community Efforts) Initiative; Marta Pelaez, executive director of Family Violence Prevention Services; San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) Chief William McManus; Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales; and Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar to do just that: listen.

(From left) U.S. Reps Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) and Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin); Marta Pelaez, Family Violence Prevention Services executive director; Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales; Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar; and San Antonio Police Chief William McManus

“To the survivors of domestic abuse: We are sorry for what you went through,” Castro said after hearing more than two hours of emotional testimony from victims, advocates, and experts. “Nobody up here can take away the past and the pain. … To a community that is affected by domestic violence, I know that I speak for myself, Congressman Doggett, Congressman [Will] Hurd (R-Helotes), all the elected officials here when I say that we will do everything that we can, in our power, to change this.

“The first thing that I believe we should do is – it’s clear there’s not enough organization in San Antonio to deal with problem comprehensively,” he said, adding that elected officials at all government levels need to convene to hear these stories and actualize the suggestions for change.

This was not the last town hall the city will see on the topic, as Castro said he expects to hear more from the community and report back on progress soon. Local leaders, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg, have signaled support to take on the challenge.

Lori Rodriguez, an assistant professor at Palo Alto College, almost lost her life in 2015 when she was savagely beaten by her then-boyfriend.

When Rodriguez broke up with him, he hid her phone and proceeded to kick, punch, bite, drug, and strangle her for about 45 minutes. After playing dead, she eventually – after another beating – was able to get to a neighbor’s house to call the police.

Palo Alto College professor Lori Rodriguez shares her experience with domestic violence.

“My attacker was never detained,” she told the crowd. “It took 2 ½ months to finally receive my protective order. During this time he stalked me. … The police simply told me there was nothing they could do without a protective order. …. He received deferred adjudication, which means that after he successfully completes his five-year probation requirement, he can expunge the incident from his record as though it never happened.”

She’s a highly educated woman who had no children at the time, speaks English, and knows how to self-advocate, she said. “I was privileged in many ways. If this was the best-case scenario for me, I cannot imagine the experiences of women who are not citizens, who do not have education, who do not speak English, who have children.

“This is not a woman’s issue, this is a community issue,” Rodriguez said, adding that she tells her story to illustrate how “broken our system is.”

The City of San Antonio is slated to soon launch a comprehensive study of domestic violence funded through its 2020 budget that will inform and enhance the efforts of the City, Bexar County, and a stakeholder joint task force on domestic violence formed in 2012.

“We can come together and meet as stakeholders … but we cannot do this work without the community, without the support of our leaders [and elected officials], without the voice of victims,” said Julia Raney Rodriguez, who co-chairs the task force and works for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.

Family Violence Prevention Services provides shelter, counseling, and a multitude of other services for families seeking help, said Pelaez. “Those who come to us, they get served and they get served holistically.”

The biggest factors in domestic violence in San Antonio is that it is ingrained in local culture through “generational violence,” she said, as victimization and abusive behavior is passed on through learned experiences of children.

“Yes,” she said, “it’s a Hispanic issue. … Domestic violence follows the demographics.”

But that’s not unchangeable, she said. “Any behavior that is learned can be replaced by a different behavior. … If we change the attitude we will be ahead of the game.”

A long line of women waiting to share their domestic violence stories fills the aisle of the church.

Breaking that cycle begins with addressing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), said Dr. Colleen Bridger, assistant City manager.

Domestic violence impacts the way children develop at a physiological level, she said. “It changes the ways that their brains develop.”

That’s why developing strategies around ACEs is the focus of Metropolitan Health District’s strategic plan, she said. “It’s a public epidemic that starts in the childhood home.”

Nirenberg sees a renewed focus on domestic violence – and family services in general – coming as the new City Council dives into next year’s budget.

“It takes a tremendous amount of courage for a victim to share her story in a very public setting that way,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report after the event. “My hope is that courage is rewarded by more victims of domestic violence speaking out and seeking justice, seeking help because part of the scourge of this issue is that victims feel forced into silence.”

Hundreds crowd into Mennonite Church’s Fellowship Sanctuary for the town hall.

The issue of domestic violence came into hyperfocus during the recent election as mayoral challenger and then-Councilman Greg Brockhouse was accused of it during the campaign. Brockhouse was never charged in such incidents and his current wife denies any violence occurred.

“This has been a very difficult several months for our city, but one positive outcome is that as a community we have revealed a very deep wound that’s been unaddressed for too long,” Nirenberg said.

“One of the things I heard loud and clear tonight was that the boundaries of jurisdiction are not helping the families in crisis, so we have to work across agencies, across sectors, across political lines to be able to solve this issue,” he said.

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