This article has been updated.
Inside the TriPoint Event Center on Tuesday morning, the men at a domestic violence seminar were asked to stand up in a crowd of nearly 100 people. All of them, roughly 20, obliged.
When faith leaders were asked to stand, about 10 men and women rose.
There should be more men and clergy involved in the conversation about domestic violence, organizers of the “Love Should Not Hurt” event said.
“We have a responsibility to come together on this problem,” Pastor Joe Barber of St. Luke’s Baptist Church told a room full of domestic violence prevention advocates, public health workers, faith workers and violence survivors. “Love is a two-way street.”
The event, organized by the local Faith Community Collaborative and the city’s human and health departments, was held on Valentine’s Day to emphasize the need to educate the community on what real love — and abuse — look like.
“Real men don’t hit girls or women,” San Antonio City Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said. “Let’s fill this room with guys and make them join the fight, too.”
Victims of domestic violence include men and women, said Patricia Castillo, executive director of the P.E.A.C.E. Initiative. Community leaders — especially faith leaders — should be actively looking for signs of abuse and connecting survivors to resources in and outside their places of worship.
“Anywhere where there’s people, there’s domestic violence,” Castillo said, and people should be aware that not all domestic violence leaves bruises. It could be “verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual, emotional, economic, or coercive control.”
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) announced Wednesday that two local domestic violence programs will receive combined funding of nearly $1 million. A free parenting program at the nonprofit Guardian House, which focuses on preventing child abuse and family violence, will receive more than $480,000. The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio will receive more than $470,000 to help train counselors, social workers, medical staff, and first responders to identify and treat child abuse and neglect.
While domestic violence prevention and victim services efforts have received more attention and funding in recent years, “we need to do more,” she said. “And one of the areas that has lagged has been in the faith community.”
That’s mainly because of fear, said Castillo, who has worked against domestic violence in San Antonio for decades.
“They’re afraid of saying the wrong things, of making the wrong recommendations,” she said. “They feel like … should I have a degree in counseling and therapy to do this?”
The answer is no, she said. All a victim needs to hear is: “‘This is wrong, what’s happening to you — this is an injustice.’ … You don’t need a degree to say those kinds of things.”
The P.E.A.C.E. Initiative, which stands for Putting An End to Abuse through Community Efforts, has trained more than 3,000 people in the community on how to help connect victims to law enforcement and resources, Castillo said.
Rachel Cavazos said she attempted to approach a priest 20 years ago while she was mourning the death of her daughter, Rolanda, who was killed by her husband in a murder-suicide. Cavazos was also experiencing abuse from her husband at the time, she said. “I needed someone to talk to.”
But the priest seemed to be too busy to take the time to learn more about Cavazos’ life, she said.
“Think about the people that come to you because sometimes asking for help isn’t going to look like I’m asking for help,” she said, addressing the clergy directly. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of asking one more question that’s going to open up the dialogue.”
The Rev. Veron Blue, co-pastor and executive administrator at Family Life International Ministries, acknowledged the faith-based community’s “lack of intervention with social issues … [but] we are correcting that.”
When Blue was asked to pray for a woman last Sunday, she dove deeper and asked her about what was happening in the woman’s life, she said. By the end of the day, the congregant was contacted by a crisis coach and a marriage counselor.
“That’s what happens when a church is educated and trained in mental health,” Blue said.
‘Bureaucrats making plans?’
In order to effectively mitigate domestic violence, the community must focus on the “upstream” causes of it, said Marta Pelaez, president and CEO of Family Violence Prevention Services, which operates the Battered Women and Children’s Shelter. Councilman Pelaez is her son.
“Sheltering domestic violence is not the way to proceed — we need to prevent it,” Marta Pelaez said. “[The] 182 women and children at the shelter today would agree.”
A large piece of the puzzle is addressing the culture around domestic violence, Castillo said, because many people still think it’s a part of normal life or “just a joke.”
“Those attitudes still are deeply ingrained in our community … [if] it’s funny, people can dismiss it,” she said.
The city and Bexar County established the Collaborative Commission on Domestic Violence (CCDV) in 2019 to explore ways to better prevent domestic violence and care for survivors. Based on preliminary work from the commission, the city unveiled a five-year plan later in the year that identified gaps in services and policies and the “Love Is” awareness campaign.
“The CCDV is interested in refreshing its strategic plan because it was written prior to COVID,” said Erica Haller-Stevenson, violence prevention administrator for the city’s Metropolitan Health District.
That refresh will be part of a broader strategic plan which is still in development, Haller-Stevenson said.
The San Antonio/Bexar County Violence Prevention Plan will include strategies to address other types of violence, such as gun, child abuse, sexual abuse and acts of mass violence.
“I expect that we’ll have between three and five focus areas in the strategic plan and domestic violence will be one of them,” she said.
The effort — which is supported by local government agencies, law enforcement organizations, faith-based organizations and universities — is still in its “information gathering stage” and will include community input before a draft plan is developed later this year, Haller-Stevenson said.
“We know we can’t tackle all the things at one time, but we should be able to figure out what are the most pressing issues for our community,” she told the San Antonio Report.
This Violence Prevention Plan is similar in name to the Violent Crime Reduction Plan recently launched by SAPD, but they are separate efforts.
“One is a law enforcement approach, the other is a public health approach, but they’re intended to be compatible,” Haller-Stevenson said.
The hot-spot policing initiative, part of the Violent Crime Reduction Plan is the first part of the three-pronged strategy to prevent and reduce violent crime — including homicides, assaults and robberies. Once the problem areas are identified, the city will use its various departments and community partners to address the underlying conditions in the area that contribute to that crime. If needed in that specific area, the plan calls for “focused deterrence” efforts to either rehabilitate repeat offenders or prosecute them.
“The violence prevention plan will be developed by the end of the year, and the timing will be perfect,” she said. “SAPD will be ready to start shifting into phase two.”
One teenager who stood up during the conversation said she was tired of simply discussing violence prevention.
“There’s too much conversation going on and not enough action,” she said to applause, her words clearly striking a chord.
Haller-Stevenson acknowledged that frustration.
“More bureaucrats making plans — I get it,” she said. “But we can’t just run off in 20 directions and that’s the point of the plans. … If we can be on the same page on the things we’re working on, and point in the same direction, we quadruple our impact.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, call or text 988. Crisis intervention specialists with Family Violence Prevention Services are available anytime at 210-733-8810.