In less than six months, Mandy Lynn Lara’s abusive ex-husband will be released from prison, where he is serving five years for sexually molesting his 7-year-old daughter.

“I have a community of people who all know that this man is coming out and told me that they would support me and protect me and my children,” Lara said. “There are some days when I feel absolutely empowered … then there’s another part of me that’s terrified that he’s going to know where I live – that he’s going to sneak off with one of my children.”

Though her ex-husband physically abused Lara numerous times over the course of their 10-year marriage – including running over her foot with a car – it wasn’t until she found about the sexual abuse of her daughter that she left him.

He pleaded guilty to the charge, but then Lara did something surprising for people who don’t know her: She advocated for the minimum prison sentence.

“He deserves his punishment but also deserves a chance to still live a normal life and have a relationship with his adult children,” she said. “If punishment is slow to happen and it’s drawn out … it becomes a way of life, and nobody has the opportunity to change.”

Giving abusers the opportunity to change their behavior, an approach known as restorative justice, will be one of more than a dozen topics discussed during the inaugural Domestic Violence Awareness Symposium taking place virtually Oct. 29-30. Experts from around the globe will share best practices with local service providers, attorneys, and other attendees of the free event.

The symposium is being presented by the Collaborative Commission on Domestic Violence created by the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, and District Court Judge Peter Sakai last year to implement the City’s Domestic Violence Comprehensive Plan. The event is a way for the commission to discuss what policies and programs are working well in Bexar County to combat domestic violence, what’s working well elsewhere, and what can be improved locally, said Jennifer Hixon, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s violence prevention manager.

San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills, an outspoken advocate for domestic violence victims, will deliver opening remarks at 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 29. From there, attendees can choose discussions aligned with civil law, criminal law, and community tracks. Click here link to view the schedule.

So far, about 400 people have registered for the event, including educators, college students, service providers, and community advocates, Hixon said. Panel and speaker topics range from the role of firearms in domestic violence to new data-driven tools to identify high-risk victims.

“We’re really thinking about not just the law enforcement approaches to violence but harm and care and how do we think about preventing violence in a more holistic way,” she said. Creating “healthy homes” for children could involve parenting classes, but access to living wages, affordable housing, and health care are part of creating a healthy, nonviolent society.

To fix the end result, she said, “you have to start way at the beginning to really change the trajectory.”

Restorative justice, especially when it comes to domestic violence, is a controversial approach, Hixon said. “That’s not something that we really have in San Antonio.”

Advocates for most other social issues such as homelessness push for fewer arrests and less police involvement. With domestic violence, it’s the opposite, Hixon said.

“They say we need to arrest [abusers] more,” she said.

That panel is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Oct. 29 with Melissa Susswein, director of marketing and communications for the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, and Nina Harris, an education specialist at Harvard University’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.

“We’ve created this idea that the only solution to domestic violence is the criminal justice system, so opening up that conversation to say, ‘What else can we do?’ is quite threatening,” Hixon said. “It’s a really tough conversation because people are so deeply, personally harmed. … They want to see people be held accountable, which is very understandable.”

It would be up to the survivors if they want to bring that approach here, she said.

At 7 p.m. on Oct. 29, congressmen Joaquin Castro and Lloyd Doggett will moderate a public town hall with domestic violence survivors, including Lara, to talk about their personal experiences. It will be aired on KABB Fox 29 and online.

Lara is now a writing teacher, freelance writer, and poet who helps other survivors tell their stories.

“When he went to prison, the first thing I did was go to my first open mic,” she said. “I’ve always been a writer and I always wanted to go to open mics, but my ex-husband said, ‘Your writing is only for me.'”

She quit her job in health care to dedicate herself to her craft and co-founded Raise the Whisper, a group that uses poetry and art to heal the effects of family rape.

“I have experienced so much healing by telling my story that I really want to help other survivors of domestic violence to do the same,” she said. “We can’t create change if we keep sweeping things under the rug.”

In communities that talk about rape and violence, survivors don’t feel alone and are more likely to report their abuser, she said.

There was a moment, after her then-husband drove over her foot, that she was nearly ready to come forward. But the law enforcement officer who responded to the scene started “yelling at me for covering up.”

“I understand his frustration, but at that time, that’s not what I needed to hear,” she said. “I think that if he would have approached this in a more compassionate way … I would have been more likely to be honest in that moment.”

Correction: The date and location of the domestic violence survivors’ town hall have been updated.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...