San Antonio Express News: National and city leaders come together to fight domestic violence
Two Texas congressmen listened raptly Tuesday night to women’s advocates and survivors of domestic violence at the first-ever town hall meeting on the problem, which has reached epidemic proportions in San Antonio.
Some survivors and victims’ family members cried at the microphone, imploring Reps. Joaquin Castro and Lloyd Doggett to help bring about change.
They joined an overflow crowd of more than 200 people — including city and county leaders, law enforcement officials and judges — to demand an increased focus on family violence, which claimed 29 lives locally last year alone.
“Tonight is mostly about listening,” Castro, D-San Antonio, said inside the Mennonite Fellowship Sanctuary. “All of us at different levels of government have to work to change the trend in San Antonio, which, more than any other big city in Texas, has the worst problem of violence against women.”
Last year, 26 people in San Antonio died because of family violence, many of them women slain by their male partners — almost triple the number in 2015. Three people died in Bexar County last year.
So far this year, there have been 15 deaths.
Castro told the audience that as a state legislator, he had written a bill to create a Texas database that would have registered anyone with two or more domestic violence offenses, but it didn’t get out of committee.
In his remarks, Doggett, D-Austin, said some 40 percent of women seeking shelter in Texas are turned away due to lack of space. One in three women in San Antonio say they experience some form of domestic violence.
“We have come here to learn how we can collaborate” to defeat family violence, he said.
Doggett noted how the federal Violence Against Women Act, the reauthorization of which has languished in Congress under the Trump administration, was derailed this year when the National Rifle Association objected to a provision that sought to close the “boyfriend loophole.”
It would have extended a federal ban on gun ownership by convicted abusers to boyfriends.
“Also there were some transgender protections” the NRA objected to, he added.
Underlying all the statistics mentioned Tuesday night were survivors’ stories.
Lori Rodriguez, a professor at Palo Alto College, told of being brutalized in 2015 by her boyfriend when she told him she was leaving him.
He beat, kicked and choked her and told her she was going to die. Somehow, she got away. The boyfriend ended up getting deferred adjudication, a diversion program that typically entails the perpetrator receiving various services, but doing little or no jail time.
Rena Castro told the story of her daughter, Erin, 19, who died last year. Joshua Garcia, the daughter’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, first began abusing her in high school, shaming and isolating her.
“Before my eyes, I saw my brave, fearless girl change,” Rena Castro said.
Garcia punched Erin in the nose and pushed her out of his car, running over her legs — a crime for which he, too, received deferred adjudication and two years’ probation.
The following September, he was accused of running over her again, killing her. He is charged with murder.
Julia Raney Rodriguez, of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid and co-chairwoman of a local domestic violence task force, said stakeholders are trying to identify “holes” in the system in Bexar County.
A gun-control advocate told the crowd that a woman is five times more likely to die at the hands of her abuser if he has access to a firearm. About 65 percent of women in Texas killed by an intimate partner were killed with a gun, she said.
Colleen Bridger, interim assistant city manager, said domestic violence is passed down through families, as children witness the abuse and fighting.
Patricia Castillo, director of the nonprofit PEACE Initiative and moderator of the town hall, described the event as a “watershed moment.”
“We’re bringing the issue of domestic violence out into the open, not just to talk about it, but also to mark that day we decided to own this, the damage it has done,” she said.
She rattled off a litany of improvements that need to happen in Bexar County: It’s too onerous for victims to get protective orders, she said. Too many women are turned away from shelters due to lack of space. Prosecutors need to move toward evidence-based prosecutions, instead of relying on the testimony of terrified — and understandably reluctant — victims.
“We need to hold perpetrators accountable, the law gives us agency to do this, and we’re not doing it fully,” she said.
She called for more coordination between the city and county and better data collection, among other goals.
“We need to find out why people are ending up dead,” she said, suggesting the addition of two ombudsmen at the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office, tasked with listening to victims and answering directly to the City Council to monitor and evaluate the system.
During the public comment period, some women spoke passionately about trying to get legal aid and other help from existing sources, only to have no one answer the phone or return calls.
Another talked about programs in other cities that are better confronting the issue.
One woman spoke of her “soul mate” being gunned down by William Osborne Jr., her neighbor across the street, who was frequently visited by police for domestic violence calls. The night in May when his girlfriend escaped his home, he shot the neighbor and killed himself before setting the home on fire.
Many other women — some crying at the microphone — told their own stories of family violence and implored the panel, which included Police Chief William McManus, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar and Marta Pelaez, head of the Battered Women’s Shelter, to respond more effectively to the problem.
Data expert Lily Casura, co-author of the recent Status of Women Report study commissioned by the mayor’s office, noted the extremely low conviction rate of misdemeanor family violence offenders in Bexar County.
In response, District Attorney Joe Gonzales said that since taking office six months ago, he’s committed more money and resources to addressing domestic violence — although that has been in the felony division, not the misdemeanor courts.
Before the town hall, Castro talked about the need to get guns out of the hands of perpetrators via federal law and the need to fully resurrect the Violence Against Women Act.
“And of course, we need to put more money, more resources in this issue,” he said.
He ended the town hall by apologizing to victims’ family members and survivors.
“There isn’t enough organizations in San Antonio to deal with this,” he said, vowing to bring together people at every level of government “to listen to survivors and advocates.”
“We need to actualize all the suggestions you have for change to turn them into laws and funding. You have my commitment.”
Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje is a general assignment reporter covering breaking news, cultural trends and interesting people and goings-on around San Antonio and Bexar County, as well as all across South Texas. Read her on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @mstoeltje