While some of the statistics released by a commission dedicated to reducing domestic violence in Bexar County last week signal some progress is being made, experts say it will take many years to significantly shake off the enduring affliction.
In San Antonio and Bexar County, family violence homicides dropped to 24 in 2021 from 36 in 2020, according to the annual statistical report compiled by the Collaborative Commission on Domestic Violence, which is led by the City of San Antonio and Bexar County.
But family violence-related 911 calls rose 12% and the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office reported a 23% increase in protective order petitions, issued by judges of civil district courts to help keep victims safe from their abusers.
The increase in calls and protective orders doesn’t necessarily indicate that domestic violence is occurring more often, said María Villagómez, deputy city manager and co-chair of the commission.
It could be an indication that some awareness efforts are sinking in, Villagómez told the San Antonio Report. “If we do our job in educating the public about domestic violence and we encourage them not to be silent about it, we expect to see more calls.”
Fewer than half of domestic or interpersonal violence cases in the U.S. were reported to the police, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Judge Monique Diaz, who co-chairs the commission, acknowledged that its efforts will not end domestic violence.
“But we can continue to work on improvements to the system, we can continue to collaborate together to see hopefully — after many more years of work — a reduction in these homicide numbers, in particular,” said Diaz, who presides over Bexar County’s 150th Civil District Court.
In 2018, Bexar County recorded the highest number of family violence homicides in which women were killed by men in the state. The county has remained in the top four of that list since then, Diaz said, landing in 3rd place last year.
These statistics only reflect a portion of the larger cycle of domestic violence, Villagómez said. For example, the statistical report doesn’t yet tie data outcomes to the commission’s goals yet.
“That is something that we’ve had a lot of discussions about: how do we report our outcomes? How do we measure impact? How do we incorporate the feedback of the victims of domestic violence and ensure that whatever we’re doing is improving their lives?”
Still, the commission felt strongly it “needed to start somewhere,” she said.
The metrics and information presented in this report is very different from the contents of the commission’s annual progress report, which outlines different strategies that different committees are working on, Diaz said.
“Each committee determines with expert guidance what metrics are going to best evaluate their strategies,” she said.
The latest progress report, released in February, described improvements to criminal and civil court processes, law enforcement practices, training for medical students and additional funding for legal assistance and support staff.
“The [statistical] report,” Diaz said, “just helps provide a better picture of the state of domestic violence in our community.”
The judge said she will be closely watching the statistic regarding children witnessing or experiencing family violence within the household, as children who do “are much more likely to become victims or perpetrators of other forms of violence in the future,” she said. “So when we’re talking about breaking cycles of abuse, that’s where we’re really needing to focus.”
The Center for Health Care Services, which gathers that data, reported a 9.2% increase in children who had seen or experienced family violence last year compared to 2020.
The city and county established the Collaborative Commission on Domestic Violence in 2019. 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.
Earlier this month, Bexar County approved $750,000 to pay for a comprehensive, three-year study of domestic violence that will add to and inform the work that the commission has started, Diaz said.
This study, which will be carried out by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Courts as well as the National Center for State Courts, will be “tailored to our community,” Diaz said. “It’s not been done in any other community in the nation, that we know of, in this comprehensive fashion.”
It will dig deep into criminal and civil courts, the protective order process and how domestic violence survivors experience these systems, she said, and will “provide the collaborative additional opportunities to work together to improve various parts of the system, because there’s so much work still left to be done.”