Local leaders and advocates chose Valentine’s Day to remind the community that domestic violence continues to plague San Antonio, but also to tout some recent successes.

“I know it might seem a little strange to meet on Valentine’s Day to discuss domestic violence, but we know that domestic violence occurs inside relationships that often start as loving and become unsafe,” said María Villagómez, deputy city manager. “We want to share the message that love and fear should never coexist in a relationship.”

As February is national Teen Dating Violence Awareness month, the city and Bexar County-led Collaborative Commission on Domestic Violence released its annual report Monday, which highlighted several points of progress across public and nonprofit sectors. Those include improvements to criminal and civil court processes, law enforcement practices, training for medical students and additional funding for legal assistance and support staff.

“We are implementing long-term strategies, not quick fixes,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg. “We know that domestic violence is deeply woven into our power systems, and multi-generational [problems] require complex, whole-family solutions.”

That means addressing the root causes of domestic violence — long before someone calls 911, San Antonio police Chief William McManus said.

“By the time SAPD is called, we have another woman or child who has been victimized,” McManus said. “Community and the media often ask, what more could you have done? For far too long … it felt to me like domestic violence prevention and response fell squarely on the shoulders of SAPD. Now, we’ve been working collectively [and] collaboratively with [the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District], to do more than just arrest the perpetrator.

“We can’t just arrest this problem away.”

The commission was established in August 2019 by a special order from then-Judge Peter Sakai. The city’s five-year plan, informed by the commission, was unveiled later that year and identifies gaps in services and policies. Statistics showed there were 25 domestic violence deaths in Bexar County in 2018 — the highest rate in the state — and those numbers had nearly tripled since 2015.

Instances of family violence in San Antonio — including intimate partner, child and elder abuse as well as suicide — has increased in recent years, said Jennifer Hixon, Metro Health’s violence prevention manager. It’s unclear if that is a direct result of the pandemic, she added, but people are now more understanding of the need to address root causes.

Because incidents of family violence are estimated to be extremely underreported, those increases may be misleading as awareness efforts increase, Hixon said. “Is it going up … [or] are we just doing a better job of getting people to reach out?”

The commission has tasked six sub-committees to take on various areas that intersect with domestic violence: prosecution, nonprofit, law enforcement, judiciary, healthcare and education.

Officials have long struggled with enforcing existing laws that prohibit possession of a firearm while a protective order is in place against an individual. In an attempt to solve that challenge, the judiciary subcommittee worked to secure funding in the past year to soon hire a civil court compliance officer who can follow up after a judge orders someone to prove they are no longer in possession of firearms of ammunition.

“If they don’t file their receipts proving that they transferred the firearms or ammunition, then we bring those folks back into court and hold them accountable,” said Judge Monique Diaz, co-chair of the commission who presides over the 150th Civil District Court and hears domestic violence cases. “We can take it as far as issuing fines and holding them in contempt of court.”

The law enforcement committee worked to establish a new pilot referral hotline for Bexar County Sheriff deputies, to help them better assess a victim’s risk of being murdered.

If it’s high, Hixon explained, they are told, “based on the screening, you’re really high risk for being killed, and I need to get you somewhere safe. It’s very direct phrasing and it kind of helps [because] it’s not ambiguous.”

The system also alerts domestic violence case managers to follow up on lower-risk situations. The pilot, in partnership with Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council, has referred dozens of people to shelter or other services since it launched in August.

“Within the two years prior to implementing this hotline, BCSO … had transferred zero victims to Family Violence and Prevention Services,” Hixon said.

Officials said the report also notes recent increases in financial and personnel devoted to domestic violence mitigation efforts. Last year, the city added 25 domestic violence detectives to SAPD to provide 24/7 coverage, and will spend $4.4 million from this year’s annual budget and $9 million from its federal coronavirus pandemic allocation.

Last summer, the county allocated $3.3 million to address the backlog in domestic violence cases.

Diaz, noting the recent deaths of two children last week who were killed in their homes in separate incidences, reminded that domestic violence doesn’t only affect the adults in a relationship; children are also often traumatized by direct or indirect abuse.

“We know that to end domestic violence we must not only focus on improving support to survivors, but also to their children and to those offenders who have often been victims of trauma themselves,” she said. “In order to break those cycles of abuse, by helping all involved in the cycle, we must continue to work collaboratively with a focus on a public health approach to domestic violence.”

For anyone experiencing domestic violence of any kind, Family Violence and Protection Services has a 24-hour hotline at (210) 733-8810. The national hotline is 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).

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