The audience of more than two hundred fell completely silent in the pews of the San Antonio Mennonite Church as Lori Rodriguez detailed how she’d once been “beaten, strangled, dragged, kicked, and even bitten” by an ex-boyfriend in an ordeal that almost left her dead.
“I was defenseless to his abuse. He would alternate between strangling me and beating my head against the floor like a basketball,” said Rodriguez, an assistant professor at Palo Alto College in San Antonio. “My attacker was never detained, and it took two and a half months to receive my protective order . . . He was charged with deadly assault and strangulation, a third-degree felony, but received no conviction.”
Such horrific acts of abuse, described by Rodriguez and other featured speakers at the San Antonio Domestic Violence Awareness Town Hall in July, “put a human face on a big problem,” said Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, one of the co-organizers of the event, along with fellow congressman Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio. The domestic abuse survivors and policy advocates in attendance demanded both answers and change in the wake of a report that called attention to an unsettlingly high rate of domestic violence in the city.
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Released in May by two researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio, “The Status of Women in San Antonio” considered thirteen dimensions of women’s lives—among them, health care, educational and employment opportunities, and homeownership—but it was the statistics surrounding domestic violence that stood out. In 2017, the most recent year studied in the report, Bexar County had a significantly higher homicide rate for women, 4.8 per 100,000 females, than the state’s two most populous counties, Harris County (3.4) and Dallas County (2.9).
Zeroing in on murders related to domestic violence, the San Antonio area looked even worse. From 2012 to 2017, the number of women killed by male intimate partners more than tripled in Bexar County, rising from five to eighteen. The 2017 rate, 1.8 per 100,000 females, dwarfed that of Dallas (0.6) and Travis (0.5) counties, and was greater than Harris County (1.2) as well. The report concluded that women face “higher risks associated” with homicide and murder by a male intimate partner in San Antonio than in Houston, Dallas, or Austin.
The report was the first of its kind in San Antonio in recent memory to gather data that could be used for comparison with other major cities in Texas, and for many in the city, the results were not unexpected.
“I think that many of us sort of inherently knew what the status of women is in our community, but to see it written down as factual information was just sobering,” said San Antonio councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, who in May called on the city to fund a comprehensive domestic violence response and prevention strategy.
Experts on the issue couldn’t pinpoint any single reason to explain the phenomenon. There’s no evidence that the factors most often linked to domestic violence—financial pressures, cultural ideas about the roles of men and women, or a family history that normalizes abusive behavior—are present in San Antonio to any greater degree than elsewhere in the state. A host of local nonprofit leaders, city officials, and survivors suggested that a lack of coordination among the entities charged with addressing domestic violence undermines their collective good intentions. Bexar County sheriff Javier Salazar told Texas Monthly that his office and the San Antonio Police Department don’t work together on the issue as well as they should.
A “coordinated community response” can be a deciding factor in the trajectory of domestic violence in a city, according to Gloria Terry, CEO of the Texas Council on Family Violence. Terry cited the seemingly successful efforts in Dallas County, whose intimate partner homicide rate was one-third of Bexar County’s in 2017.
Dallas city councilmember Jennifer Gates credits former mayor Mike Rawlings’s Men Against Abuse Campaign with spurring a culture shift in the city and revitalizing the Domestic Violence Task Force, which Gates chairs. The task force consists of more than forty members from advocacy organizations, government agencies, law enforcement agencies, and others. One initiative of the task force is the city’s lethality assessment protocol, which allows police officers to screen individuals suspected of being in danger from family violence and connect them to local support services. The task force also sponsors training for individuals likely to have contact with survivors, such as doctors and nurses. Gates said the goal was to ensure that service providers and others are “armed with information” to identify domestic abuse and direct survivors to resources. The homicide rate for women in Dallas has fallen from 3.6 per 100,000 women in 2013 to 2.9 in 2017.
Similarly, the Austin/Travis County Family Violence Task Force, which includes representatives of both government and nonprofit organizations, also meets regularly to identify discrepancies in the city’s handling of domestic violence and to propose policy solutions. “It’s just an entire community, holistic approach that we take to domestic violence that makes a difference,” said Mack Martinez, a task force member and director of the Family Violence Division of the Travis County Attorney’s Office.
And while the Dallas and Austin task forces have been around for decades, the Bexar County Domestic Violence Task Force was long an informal organization, with little city involvement, rather than a driver of policy change.
Patricia Castillo, executive director of the P.E.A.C.E. Initiative, a San Antonio nonprofit, told Texas Monthly that county and city officials, as well as law enforcement and community organizations, need to be working together to improve protections for women. “We have to work on our arrest rates. We have to work on holding perpetrators accountable through parole and probation. We have to work at effectively getting women protective orders, and then we’ve got to ensure that those are properly enforced,” she said. “Those have been the gaps in service.”
San Antonio law enforcement representatives said they plan to step up their efforts at outreach. The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office has begun training a new volunteer force dubbed VOICES (Victims of Interpersonal Crime Empowerment Services) to aid domestic violence victims at substations across the county. The volunteers will receive specialized training to help victims trying to leave their dangerous environment, and act as liaisons between victims and service providers.
Politically, the tide may be changing too. Six of the ten members of the San Antonio City Council are now women. In September, the council passed a budget that includes $1 million for domestic violence prevention, and in October city leaders rolled out an awareness campaign called “Love Is” aimed at promoting healthy relationships.
Moreover, some local leaders are pushing for the city and county to provide $1 million for a pilot court program authorized by the Legislature that would handle family violence cases where drug dependency is involved.
And the sleepy Domestic Violence Task Force has now been rebooted as the Collaborative Commission on Domestic Violence, which includes city officials, law enforcement, prosecutors, and nonprofit leaders. The commission is co-chaired by assistant city manager Colleen Bridger, who said the participation of her co-chair, District Court Judge Monique Diaz, is especially important because any changes they hope to make would need to have buy-in from judges throughout the justice system in order to be implemented.
The commission is taking steps toward completing the comprehensive domestic violence response and prevention strategy that Councilwoman Gonzales requested in May. Those on the frontlines of San Antonio’s crisis are hopeful that the risks to women can be reduced, but they remain vigilant.
Women like Edith Parks, who attended the town hall in July, are tired of waiting for more to be done. When she took her turn at the mic, Parks said she feared that her abusive husband would receive deferred adjudication—leading possibly to no jail time or conviction at all. Survivors, she said, should not be left to navigate the justice system alone.“The victims do not forget,”she said. “We don’t forget what we’ve been through. We just hope y’all don’t forget for us, because it’s real. The fear is real.”