A group of local organizations aimed at combating domestic violence in San Antonio has identified several wins but also remaining hurdles in a report released Monday.

The first year of the Collaborative Commission on Domestic Violence kicked off seven months before the COVID-19 pandemic, which only exacerbated domestic violence – due to increased stress levels – and slowed down some of the work the commission planned for 2020, said Jennifer Hixon, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s violence prevention manager.

But the pandemic also brought brighter light to the challenges faced by survivors of domestic violence.

“It helped to highlight how many folks in our community really need some of these basic needs met,” said Hixon, a member of the commission. “It’s those basic needs like housing, childcare, [and] job placement that are oftentimes the things that make a big difference for people.”

During its first year, the commission’s six committees (which focused on health care, policy, judiciary, law enforcement, prosecution, and nonprofits) were able to establish the commission’s structure “so that it can last for the long term,” she said.

“All of these approaches related to domestic violence, they’re not quick fixes,” she said. “If they’re going to actually work, we’re going to have to have sustained high-level commitment for many, many years to really see change.”

That progress can be hard to see from the outside, she said, but the commission also made more concrete improvements to prevention and response systems, including a pro-bono protective order program, a team dedicated to identifying residents most at risk of death, school curriculums on dating violence, and an awareness campaign. It also hosted a virtual symposium wherein 3,641 individuals attended 16 sessions.

In May 2019, Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) and Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) pushed for more funding and a comprehensive plan to reduce domestic violence. At the time, statistics showed there were 25 domestic violence deaths in Bexar County in 2018 – the highest rate in the state – and the numbers have nearly tripled since 2015.

The commission was established in August 2019 by a special order from Judge Peter Sakai. The City’s five-year plan, informed by the commission, was unveiled later that year.

“I’m encouraged [by the commission’s report], and at the same time like everybody else, I’m really, really anxious,” Pelaez said.

The pandemic has created a “perfect pressure cooker” for domestic violence, he said.

“[The commission and the plan] was supposed to tackle domestic violence when times were good, and [even] when times were good, domestic violence was pretty bad,” he said. “Now, times are really bad, and domestic violence always increases when you’ve got people stressed out and when we’ve got abusers having to spend more time at home. … The burden that was placed on the shoulders of these very, very good people serving on this commission is now a much heavier burden than it was at the beginning of 2020.”

His mother, Marta Pelaez, serves on the commission and is president and CEO of Family Violence Prevention Services.

The commission is building meaningful infrastructure and pushing for real changes, but the councilman would like to see more involvement with school districts, faith-based communities, and LGBTQIA advocates.

The report released Monday outlines plans to establish an education committee comprised of university and college leaders.

But warning signs of domestic violence can emerge in children at any grade level or institution, Pelaez said. “Oftentimes the school districts [and teachers] are the first to see the red flags.”

Faith leaders should also play a role in prevention, he said. “We need to recruit [faith] leaders, and church leaders need to open their doors to allow all these service providers to come in and offer education services.”

Domestic violence doesn’t only exist in heterosexual relationships, he said.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, research shows that LGBTQIA partners experience domestic violence at “equal or even higher rates compared to their heterosexual counterparts.”

“I don’t consider this committee’s work to be thorough unless they’re also addressing the LGBTQIA [issue],” Pelaez said.

While the report does not explicitly mention the communities that Pelaez pointed out, Hixon said, the commission has started to engage them.

The teen dating violence curriculum includes gender-neutral scenarios, and much of the marketing materials are inclusive, she said.

“I think my original draft of this report, to be totally honest, was close to 25 or 30 pages in just text,” she said. The final version is nine pages with graphics. “We didn’t want to seem like we’re just sticking things in there. … [Rather we’re] focusing on the big broad themes.”

Additional committees will likely be formed as the commission’s work continues, and a more comprehensive report containing 2020 data is expected to be released in May.

More information about the commission’s work is available at www.ccdv.org, which Hixon hopes will become a “hub” of resources.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org