San Antonio Express News: New commission looks to fill gaps in San Antonio’s domestic violence response

members of CCDV

A new commission with a singular and complex goal — to reduce domestic violence in Bexar County — was formally unveiled Friday, as officials came together to decry an epidemic of family violence-related fatalities here and vowed to find ways to end it.

The Commission on Collaborative Strategies to Prevent, Combat and Respond to Domestic Violence will be made up of five subcommittees, each of which will explore the gaps and barriers in the current system that too often allow victims to go without help — sometimes to their deaths.

“We don’t want to diminish the hard work that has already been done,” said Judge Peter Sakai of 225th District Court, who created the new group. “But with this commission, we’re going to step back, take stock and see what all the issues are, and what we can do better to deal with this problem.”

Last year, 29 people died from domestic violence in Bexar County, many of them women slain by their intimate partners, such as husbands or boyfriends.

That number has increased in recent years. Bexar County had the highest per capita rate of intimate partner homicides in Texas in 2017, the Austin-based Texas Council on Family Violence reports.

Judge Monique Diaz of 150th District Court spoke directly to victims at the news conference, which was held on the steps of the Bexar County Courthouse and drew U.S. Rep Joaquin Castro, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and a slew of local officials and advocates.

“Our system has failed you,” she said. “We refuse to accept that trajectory.”

Castro, who with U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett held a town hall on domestic violence in July, where survivors poured out their stories, said domestic violence long has been a “deep problem” in San Antonio.

“Too many people live in fear of their spouses, their loved ones,” he said, noting the role mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse often can play in family violence.

Nirenberg said the commission will “elevate” the issue and find better ways to help victims, hold perpetrators accountable and fix a criminal justice system that “can’t keep up.”

The commission’s five subcommittees include law enforcement, health care, prosecution, the judiciary and nonprofit organizations and other stakeholders. They will be led by 20 committee heads, all drawn from the fields of law enforcement, the courts and various nonprofit advocacy groups.

Colleen Bridger, assistant city manager and co-leader of the commission with Diaz, said the city is in the process of identifying gaps and coming up with recommendations for closing them through its comprehensive domestic violence plan.

Announced in May by City Council members Shirley Gonzales and Manny Peláez, the comprehensive plan grew out of concerns over several high-profile domestic violence deaths, including that of Andreen McDonald, whose body went missing for months and whose husband, Andre McDonald, now is being held in connection with her death.

Bridger said the comprehensive plan will be presented to the City Council and Bexar County Commissioners Court on Oct. 30.

“That plan will serve as a menu, from which the commission will select which options and items to work on for one year,” she said.

The commission — a city-county collaboration — will be active for three years, she said, while the comprehensive plan will stay in existence for five years.

The comprehensive plan already has identified a host of gaps — everything from a lack of prevention programs and community-awareness campaigns to inadequate data collection and insufficient housing for victims fleeing violence.

Recommendations span the range as well, including the development of protocols to keep guns out of the hands of abusers and a pilot program that would create a Domestic Violence High-Risk Team.

This new commission will be different from past efforts to address domestic violence because of the level of collaboration involved, officials said.

“We’re all going to be at the same table, talking about making this better,” Bridger said “This commission is built on the belief that violence is preventable.”

As the commission begins its work, the city recently proposed an additional $1 million in funding in the 2020 fiscal year budge, to enhance domestic violence prevention programs and other services.

To underscore the challenges at hand, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus read a journal entry from a domestic violence victim. In it, she spoke of at first feeling safe with and loved by her partner — until, consumed with jealousy, he began to beat her. She planned to deactivate her Facebook page, just to assuage his fears.

“Tammy Ramirez was murdered on Dec. 3, nine days after writing this entry,” he said.

This story originally appeared in the San Antonio Express News, you can read it here.

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