Members of the Atascosa County community joined Safer Path Family Violence Shelter at the 3rd Annual Shine a Light on Domestic Violence Vigil on Oct. 28 at the Atascosa County Courthouse. The vigil was a space to come together to raise awareness, celebrate survivors and honor victims of domestic violence. Speakers included Safer Path’s Rhonda Williamson and Andrea Rathmell, District Attorney Audrey Louis, Atascosa County Judge Bob Hurley, Pleasanton Police Chief Ronald Sanchez and Jourdanton Police Chief Eric Kaiser.
Over the last two years, the pandemic has caused much grief and loss. What many didn’t see, was that there was another pandemic breeding and spreading in the shadows. According to the FBI Inner Report on Crime, in 2020, the United States experienced the biggest rise in murder since 1960, and intimate partner homicide was no exception. The Texas Council on Family Violence reports 228 Texans were killed by their intimate partners across 68 counties in 2020. Atascosa County was one of those counties where four lives were lost: two in Pleasanton and two in Poteet.
In Fiscal Year 2020, Safer Path provided 9,630 services to victims of domestic violence. That is 267 more than the previous year. At a glance, those services include 4,145 crisis interventions (2,000+ from last year), 2,830 sheltered, 166 counseling, 736 legal advocacies, 1,135 case managements, 1,586 calls to their 24/7 hotline and 1,237 community resource referrals.
“The intersection of domestic violence and COVID-19 has often been referred to as a pandemic a pandemic,” said Andrea Rathmell, Director of Outreach, Education and Prevention at Safer Path. “As advocates, we braced ourselves for the aftermath of the pandemic.
We knew what the silencing of hotline calls had meant, and it was not because the violence had stopped. Instead, the call for help was quieted by isolation, threats and an intense escalation of physical abuse. It is now more than ever that we must keep families safe and prevent more lives from being taken at the hands of their abuser.”
Safer Path Executive Director Rhonda Williamson explained that rural communities face many barriers in providing coordinated response for domestic violence: geographic isolation due to wide-open spaces, under-resourced support agencies and the difficulty to maintain confidentiality because everyone knows each other.
“All these things make it harder to provide help and even harder to seek help. And yet, taking care of each other is a central part of our South Texas heritage,” said Williamson. “Out here, community matters, and a community in danger is why we are all here tonight. Because we seek to support the most vulnerable in our community, Safer Path partners with our local law enforcement, prosecutors, community resource programs and healthcare providers to improve outcomes for the survivors and their families. We seek to increase survivor safety and offender accountability through innovative apwithin proaches to prevention, intervention and response to domestic violence.”
Williamson said the needs in our area are many and the resources to meet them are few. “Too many victims are falling through the cracks in our community, and we must do this hard work of breaking down barriers and truly collaborating to prevent any more deaths here in Atascosa County. Our goal at Safer Path is to help victims achieve restoration to full physical, mental and emotional health. We want to build a safe and abuse-free community. By working together with our system partners, restoration can be achieved because we are building a community that is sensitive to the many needs of survivors while also holding offenders accountable.”
Pleasanton Police Chief Ronald Sanchez stated that domestic violence within the City of Pleasanton continues to be a problem. “In the past, we just dealt with it as it came, but now we’ve created a partnership with Safer Path that continues to grow every day,” said Chief Sanchez. “Without their work, our job would be so much more difficult. We really appreciate every one of you.”
Chief Sanchez also recognized his employees in attendance including Lt. D. Jimenez, Captain J. Gonzales, Sgt. J. Chia (Safer Path board member), Ofc. C. Martinez and Detective A. Perez. The Pleasanton PD has not had an officerinvolved shooting in 21 years, but this year alone they’ve had two, with the last one being a domestic violence case. “These people are the heart and soul of the Pleasanton Police Department. Every day we see an increase in violence and I wish I could tell you a solution to this, but I can’t. However, in our profession, our solution is to continue to respond to these calls and to help our citizens in need.”
Jourdanton Police Chief Eric Kaiser recognized the staff of Safer Path, saying they go unrecognized and unnoticed for the 24/7 work they do for victims. “We have all kinds of first responders who respond to these events on a daily basis, but there’s a group of people who go unrecognized on a daily basis and its most of the staff at Safer Path that provide counseling and resources and a safe place to transition into a new life for these victims of family and domestic violence. Twenty-four hours a day someone is answering that phone and helping these victims on our behalf. As we continue to move forward and tighten those bonds, I want to thank those staff who are working 24/7.”
Atascosa County Judge Bob Hurley added that 30 years ago the groundwork was set to help victims of domestic violence and he was proud to see how far they’ve come since then. “What Safer Path has done and what they’ve accomplished for this very vulnerable part of our population is truly amazing. I couldn’t be prouder of what you’ve done for these citizens. It’s not just that they’re trapped physically, they’re trapped psychologically, and they need each one of you to get out of it and help plan their path forward. I just don’t know what to say other than that I’m extremely proud of you all.”
Audrey Louis, District Attorney and Vice President of Safer Path Board of Directors, said that domestic violence response is some of the toughest and most violent calls that law enforcement and EMS respond to. “They are putting their lives at risk to help those truly vulnerable and to protect those who need protection. I’m grateful that we have as many law enforcement here tonight because we thank you for all you do. We are here to fight for our victims and make sure we hold offenders accountable, but we cannot express enough gratitude to you for putting your lives at risk every single day to try to combat this.”
Louis reported that half of the felony domestic violence cases within the five-county District were from Atascosa County in 2021. “So thank you for the work that you’re doing because that means you’re making the cases, you’re bringing them to us and we’re going to hold them accountable.”
In honor of the four lives lost to domestic violence in Atascosa County, Safer Path Executive Board of Directors Vice President JJ Trevino, Board Member Pamela Hughes, Board Member Jessica Putz and former Board President Jessica Tom read narratives of the victims. These included David Quinonez of Pleasanton (Feb. 29, 2020), Aurora Angelina Martinez of Pleasanton (Aug. 13, 2020), Margie Arguijo of Poteet (Aug. 30, 2020) and Jennifer Story of Poteet (July 15, 2020).
The vigil was especially moving as the families and friends of victims of domestic violence were in attendance. The song by Andra Day, “Rise up,” was played as all those in attendance lit their candles to shine a light on domestic violence.
“As my friend Gloria Terry, the CEO of Texas Council on Family Violence, has said, every one of these fatalities was knowable, predictable and preventable. Texas, we must do better. This is our time to do better,” said Williamson. “And as Abraham Maslow said, ‘In any given moment, we have two options: To step forward into growth or step back into safety.’ 2020 showed us that there is no safety for us to step back into. As a community, we must step forward into growth even if it’s painful, messy and slow. Atascosa County, we must do better, and we will.”
The path to safety can begin with a hotline call. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, please call Safer Path’s hotline at 830-569-2001. Press 1 to speak to an advocate and 2 to speak to administration. Someone will answer, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.