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Domestic Violence Awareness Month: The realities of domestic violence in Travis County

It’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month and, in Travis County, it’s a very prevalent problem that first responders take seriously.

AUSTIN, Texas — Domestic violence is a prevalent problem across the country that affects more than 40% of Texas women and nearly 35% of Texas men, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

In Travis County, the problem is just as real and a reality that first responders and people in the justice system help with every day.

For Domestic Violence Awareness Month, KVUE is introducing some of the people who work to get justice for survivors.

Domestic violence often gets increasingly worse

Travis County Sheriff’s Deputy Kim Richards has responded to countless domestic violence calls during her decades-long law enforcement career.

When she arrives on a scene, the first priority is separating everyone involved, then figuring out who did what and how the parties want to proceed.

Richards said while it may be one of the hardest calls for a victim to make, it could also be a call that saves their life.

“When I hear, ‘This was the first time,' you know, 'It'll never happen again, I'm not worried about it,’ I realize, based on all of the calls that I have experienced, that more than likely it will happen again and it will get worse to the point where it could become life-threatening,” Richards said.

According to Travis County Sheriff’s Office statistics, 38% of the county’s homicides over the last decade were domestic violence-related.

Domestic violence calls come from all over the county and it’s an issue that affects all classes of people, from low-income to affluent individuals, Richards said. She said society and class have nothing to do with the level of violence that can occur.

“There’s been times where it's been a male aggressor and he sees me as a female officer coming to arrest him and he loses his mind because, in his mind, a female is not the one to be arresting him. 'How dare you? You don't have that power,'” Richards said. “'I am the one who has the power.' And, you know, I got to admit, sometimes it makes me feel good when I'm like, 'OK, you know what. I'm showing this young lady or maybe the young daughter that you have power and control. You just need to find it within yourself. It's in there. You just need to unlock it.'”

Victims get special service from counselor

When 911 dispatchers get domestic disturbance calls, they often send a member of the Victim Services Unit to respond along with deputies. The victim services counselor helps a victim sort through their options. 

Huitzi Valdez is a counselor with the Travis County Sheriff's Office Victim Services Unit. When at a scene, he usually spends a lot of time with the victim when emotions are running high. The assistance could include anything from food and water to a discussion about resources or potential outcomes from the incident. 

Valdez said people in his position serve as a conduit between the people investigating and the people affected, trying to make sure victims feel safe. 

"When I leave a scene, even though it was a really difficult scene, you know, leaving [knowing] that you've helped a person, they're in a better place – at least even maybe a smaller, just a tad bit better place than when you left, right? You've given them resources. Sometimes you've given them options that they didn't have before," Valdez said. 

Sometimes, Valdez said talking to a victim at the scene is the first time that they open up to someone about an abusive relationship. He'll ask specific questions that could help identify behavior patterns. 

"Nobody should be abused, regardless if you're a male or female. So, sometimes addressing that is something that, that we do right off the bat to kind of put them at ease that, 'I'm not here to judge you. I don't care about the stigmas. I'm here to help you out throughout your case,'" he said. 

The unit also has volunteers. Everyone in the unit comes from different walks of life and goes through rigorous training to be best equipped to help in varying situations. Valdez said one of their most important roles is making sure a victim's needs are heard. 

Detectives gather important details from domestic disturbance calls

After deputies and victim services counselors respond to a scene, detectives do the investigative work to get a case ready for filing charges with prosecutors. 

A common denominator in family violence cases is an emotionally charged action that involves a power-and-control dynamic, Travis County Sheriff's Deputy Anthony Sampson said. That's why it's sometimes more difficult for a domestic violence survivor to come forward. 

"When we have victims that don't want to speak out against their domestic partner and they don't want to file charges, the courts will examine those cases even more thoroughly, want to know the history of the relationship potentially to further pursue those cases, even though that victim does not want to come into court and give a statement," Sampson said.

When he reviews a case, he often listens back to the 911 call to learn about the tensest and sometimes most revealing moments.

"I, as a detective, want to know those things that have been said by that victim during that call because it gives me a sense of not just reading a black and white report from a deputy, [but] what happened during the moment of crisis when that person felt like they needed to call 911," he said. 

During domestic violence investigations, Sampson said he spends a lot of time looking into an abuser's criminal history or patterns of behavior that come up even before a crime occurs, which helps him put together a solid case. 

Travis County sheriff commits to protecting survivors

The Travis County Sheriff's Office as a whole works domestic violence cases from the time a call comes in up until the case is sent to prosecutors. 

Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez said everyone in the system has to do their part. 

"It's a process. And we all have to do our part and we all have to do it for the right reason. We have to do it for the victim," Hernandez said.

It's an important priority for the sheriff's office because of the severe impact these types of cases can have on a family, Hernandez said. 

Every year for the last three years, the sheriff's office has worked over 1,000 domestic violence cases. Hernandez said the numbers are going in that direction again this year.

"It's all about the victims and it's all about keeping that victim alive and well. We don't want to see that abuse that often just escalates and escalates, and it escalates until somebody is killed," Hernandez said.

Domestic violence escalating to a much worse situation isn't uncommon in Travis County. The sheriff's office said 38% of the county's homicides over the last 10 years were domestic violence-related.

"Domestic violence is bad, right? Homicide is worse," Hernandez said. "So, if you can stop domestic violence early, you prevent homicides, right? And so, it is so important to get to a victim at the first signs of domestic violence instead of allowing that abuser to [continue] through that process and end up killing a victim."

County attorney starts new policy aimed at protecting survivors

Once police finish their investigation, misdemeanor cases are referred to Travis County Attorney Delia Garza’s office.

If a criminal case is not brought forward by investigators, the county attorney’s office can still help domestic violence survivors with obtaining a protective order. Garza said a lawyer isn’t necessary to obtain one and it’s something that can be applied for by calling her office.

“That's really, for many, the first step in seeking help,” Garza said. “I think it's one of the least intimidating steps for them because once you get into the court process and police are involved, that can be a little more intimidating to victims.”

As the Travis County community grows, so does the list of cases for prosecutors. Garza said her office does everything it can to provide the services and support that survivors need. Her office also has victim services counselors.

“As our community grows, we're going to see these cases also increase, just like with everything else that's increasing. And we will need more resources out in the community trying to intervene in these types of cases,” Garza said. “It is prevalent. It affects so many things. It affects children, it affects families and our community. And the quicker we can intervene and stop violence, the better we are … as a community.”  

Garza took office in January. Prosecutors have since implemented a formal policy for asking judges to make abusers forfeit any weapons they have, even if no weapons were used in the crime being prosecuted. She said that’s an important step to ensuring a victim has additional protection and is out of harm’s way.

While the request could have been made in the past for some cases, it’s now policy on every single type of case like this for the prosecutor to ask the court for the weapon forfeiture order, Garza said.

Group helps survivors access justice system

The Texas Advocacy Project helps domestic violence survivors access the justice system and work through some processes that can be pretty complex.

CEO Heather Bellino said when a domestic violence victim decides to leave their abuser, that is the most dangerous time for them because that decision threatens the power and control the abuser wants to have. 

"If you've been abused and you've been traumatized and you've been told that nobody's ever going to believe you and that it's your fault, for you to be able to stand up and say, 'No, this happened to me and I need help,' that takes a lot of courage. But it also takes a lot of guidance," Bellino said.

That's why the Texas Advocacy Project exists to try to make it easier for victims to get help.

"We're here for a civil legal remedy side and to help to keep that whole machine, all of that system, speaking to each other. And so, it's really important that we as a society know all of the resources available. And if you can plug into one, you plug into all," Bellino said.

If an abuser ends up not going to jail or is found not guilty, the Texas Advocacy Project can still help a survivor on the civil legal side of things, like acquiring a protective order. Bellino said a survivor is 80% less likely to be victimized with an order.

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