Family violence funding for Bexar County courts stalled
Child abuse and domestic violence are rampant across the Bexar County. The county leads the state in child removals and advocates have said domestic violence levels are at epidemic levels. Yet, $1.8 million in funding for what judges have called a critical expansion of courts to ensure the welfare of children in Bexar County is stuck in a bureaucratic maze, waiting for approval.
Nearly three months ago civil court judges with support from the District Attorney’s office as well as the Sheriff proposed setting up an additional children’s court with support services. The new court would focus on family violence cases and add capacity to a system that many describe as overburdened with the two current children’s court judges working long hours, with limited time to engage with the focus of each case on a child.
“When you're dealing with domestic violence, and other factors for removal as well. It's really important for the judge to be able to sit down and gather as much evidence as possible concerning the child and the parents in the situation,” said Judge Rosie Alvarado, a Bexar County civil judge who co-wrote the request.
The same is doubly true for prosecutors in these courts whose caseloads are at times as much as three times that of other large urban counties, with as many as 525 kids on each caseload, according to a September testimony from the DA’s office.
“There's no time to prepare, there's no time for mediations, there's no time to call workers back to staff cases,” said Mauro Valdez, the chief of the child welfare area at Bexar County District Attorney’s office.
Normally the caseloads are around 300 cases per assistant district attorney, or double the rate in the much larger Harris County.
The budget request came in at the eleventh hour of the county budget process. Commissioners tabled the discussion, clearly uncomfortable signing off on several million dollars without more consideration. Initially scheduled for Commissioners Court on Oct. 19, the discussion never took place and judges say they haven’t been able to give additional data or presentations to commissioners. Some have questioned its future.
“It doesn’t look good. It looks like the county backtracked on that,” said Judge Ron Rangel, a district judge on the criminal side who is also on the Collaborative Coalition on Domestic Violence.
“It’s not dead,” said a commissioner’s staffer who didn’t want to be identified, suggesting more was coming through the holidays to resolve the funding issue. While meetings may be in the queue but it will likely be early next year before the issue is resolved if at all.
The timeline may threaten some therapeutic services being provided to victims.
“These programs are of tremendous critical value, not only to the people that are participating in the programs, not only to their families, but to the community at large,” said Marta Prada Peláez, CEO of Family Violence Prevention Services.
FVPS is currently providing counseling assessments for the courts and intervention programs for perpetrators. While some of the programming is funded by the Texas Department on Criminal Justice, it isn’t enough to implement it fully.
“How do I facilitate services without paying a salary to a counselor to facilitate it just, it would not be possible that that would not be possible,” said Prada Peláez.
Judges cut the request nearly in half from $3 million, but the current budget request would still provide $400,000 for FVPS. The money covers a psychiatrist, outpatient substance abuse treatment, family violence classes, in home therapy for victims and batterers and supervised visitation assistance.
“If the county is interested in participating in reducing the incidence of domestic violence — of which we occupy a place of dishonorable distinction in the state and in the nation as well — then they would advance the funding,” said Prada Peláez.
In addition to money for counseling and intervention, the budget proposal also calls for the creation of an appointment wheel to get lawyers for victims of domestic violence.
“Frequently perpetrators of domestic violence, if they can no longer physically abuse their victims, they will do it through the court system, they'll hire an attorney,” said Julia Raney Rodriguez, director of client services at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.
Abusers attempt to get sole custody of the children. They make allegations against victims and victims are often unable to defend themselves with legal counsel. The request would direct $750,000 towards representation for litigants in cases for protective orders, child support, and custodianship.
“Victims are in court unrepresented, it's unlikely that they will be heard, it's unlikely that they will get the assistance that they need,’ she said.
They are also less likely to leave abusive situations if they think they won’t be able to keep kids safe, Raney Rodriguez said.
Commissioners have expressed support for expanding services but have yet to make the time to dig into the topic, and initially asked for additional data. The county injected an additional $1.3 million into domestic violence prevention services earlier this year and partially funded an additional third court. The funding was inadequate to operate the court, according to judges.
As commissioners prepare to meet this month on the issue, it isn’t clear it will come away with all the funding advocates say it needs.