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Town Hall Explores New Online Options That Offer Lifeline For People Experiencing Abuse

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Domestic violence calls to San Antonio police were up 20% from last year before the stay-at-home mandate was issued in March. Then, the number of calls to police dropped by 13 percent. Officials knew that decline was not good news.

“We knew that didn’t mean that there wasn’t domestic violence occurring. It just means that people weren’t able to get out and report it,” said Jesse Salame, a lieutenant with the San Antonio Police Department, during an online town hall Friday afternoon.

Other agencies that help people experiencing abuse have also reported unsettling declines in requests for service.

The decline has been attributed to people essentially being trapped at home with their abusers and losing regular touch with family and friends due to the pandemic. The Battered Women and Children’s Shelter and ChildSafe, a child abuse prevention and services organization, also saw declines.

“So we saw a 60% decrease when this started, when the stay at home order started, and it created a lot of fear within us,” said Kayla Bailey, a panelist and director of prevention & community awareness at ChildSafe.

But there have been some changes in the city that are giving people other chances to reach out for help.

“Maybe, I don’t know if we can call it a silver lining of Covid. … We have really been able to progress technology and leverage that to be able to reach more people and have our services more accessible to them,” said attorney Erin Martinson, who was also part of the town hall panel.

That includes online court appearances and digital protective orders, options that have allowed people to file for protective orders online since April. Previously, people had to go to the center and meet with someone face-to-face to apply.

Crystal Chandler, executive director of the Bexar County Family Justice Center, said there was an increase in the request for services from the center during the stay-at-home order, but that seems like it could be linked to the new online accessibility of protective orders. Because since the city began opening again, reports of domestic violence have surged.

“Since the stay home orders have lifted ... we have seen a significant increase in the number of people reaching out to the center,” she said. “So much so that, in my conversations with District Attorney Gonzales, he reassigned a number of advocates and prosecutors to our protective order unit located here at the Family Justice Center to provide assistance so that we can give these cases the priority and attention that they need.”

A citywide focus on domestic violence was sparked last year after a report showed that the number of women killed in intimate partner homicide more than tripled in Bexar County from 2012-2017 and doubled from 2015-2017. The increase is drastically higher than in other major cities throughout the state during the same time period.

The city launched a multi-faceted collaborative commission on domestic violence in October in hopes of mitigating those numbers.

Anyone experiencing domestic violence can contact the P.E.A.C.E Initiative at 210-533-2729. Digital protective orders can be filed here.

Jolene Almendarez can be reached at JoleneAlmendarez@gmail.com and on Twitter at @jalmendarez57.

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