Safer Path Family Violence Shelter held its Domestic Violence Vigil, October 8 at the Atascosa County Courthouse. The purpose of the vigil was to shine a light on domestic violence in the community and celebrate survivors and honor victims of domestic violence. Those speaking included Rhonda Williamson, Andrea Rathmell, District Attorney Audrey Louis, Atascosa County Sheriff David Soward, Pleasanton Mayor Travis Hall, Poteet Mayor Willie Leal, Pleasanton Police Chief Ronald Sanchez and Jourdanton Police Chief Eric Kaiser.
Safer Path has helped 12,498 people over the last 28 years flee a life of violence and learn to walk a safer path. They help with crisis 24 hours/7 days a week/365 days a year via a hotline, safe shelter and on-going support services to survivors.
“This has been an unprecedented year for our country and community,” said Andrea Rathmell, Director, Safer Path Family Violence Shelter. “The pandemic has changed the way we gather, go to school, work, and live. When the stay-at-home order was put in place, for many, this did not mean safety.”
Rathmell told the crowd that the stay-at-home orders gave abusers opportunities to further isolate their victims, often in homes with increased levels of stress.
“2020 has been a year of unique challenges and changes,” said Executive Director of Safer Path Family Violence Shelter, Rhonda Williamson. “On March 16, we put our pandemic response plan into action. Immediately, calls to our hotline increased, and our shelter was full. As the threat of COVID-19 lingered through April, we began to see a terrifying trend: hotline calls and requests for shelter declined.” It was in April that the Governor put the shelter-in-place in order.
Williamson said that as shelter-in-place orders began to lift, calls to the hotline increased and the shelter filled. She said that the shelter noticed a sharp escalation in the severity of the abuse experienced by our clients. “We picked clients up at hospitals with broken bones and stitches,” said Williamson. “You have seen the violence escalating right here in our community. Three women have died in Atascosa County in the last month from Domestic Violence. Someone who said they loved these women chose to end their lives. You knew them. These women were your friends, your family members, the parent of your child’s classmate, the woman you smiled at while at the grocery store, or the woman you sat behind in church. These murders have created trauma for children, grandchildren, family, neighbors and friends. We will feel the ripples of their lost lives for generations.”
Mayor Hall recently issued a Domestic Violence Awareness proclamation and read some impactful statistics. “One in every four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime,” said Mayor Hall. “Fleeing domestic violence has made women and children one of the fastest-growing homeless populations. So, we are here this evening to let that light shine on domestic violence awareness. Here’s how we can make this light shine brighter. This coming January, the legislators meet in Austin. Please get a hold of that senator and get a hold of that state representative that represents you. Tell them that we need stiffer heftier fines and we need mandatory jail time for those convicted of domestic violence. That is our message this evening. We have a powerful partnership between the City of Pleasanton and the Pleasanton Police Department and Safer Path. We thank them.”
Sheriff David Soward said that he became aware of the large number of family violence cases when he began as sheriff eight years ago. He stated that he named Sgt. Albert Garza as the family violence and crimes against women and children investigator when he became sheriff. “That is practically his whole job,” said Soward. “He does not take any more cases. He received extensive training over the years in those fields and is tasked with working all types of these crimes. My investigator works closely with the advocates of Safer Path and we enjoy a close working relationship with them.”
Sheriff Soward said that their caseload has been slightly higher this past year. They have filed 107 family-violence-related criminal cases that have been accepted by the prosecutors. These have included assault by bodily injury, aggravated assault, sexual assault and murder. “We would like to see these numbers go down and we will continue to make these crimes a top priority at the sheriff’s office,” said Sheriff Soward. “Domestic violence must stop. Those responsible for it must be held accountable. It is our job and everyone’s here tonight to help achieve these goals. It is a team effort.”
Pleasanton Police Chief Ronald Sanchez, who has worked for the Pleasanton Police Department for 23 years said, “During that time, we’ve seen many changes in our community. Unfortunately, crimes against the family are one of the crimes that have remained consistent. In the early stages of my career, we arrested the abuser and the victim was often left at home. Sometimes with no one to turn to. Such is not the case today. Thanks to the Safer Path last year, the Pleasanton Police Department provided family violence victims a police escort to a safe environment on 64 different occasions. And we filed 87 family violence cases. The Pleasanton Police Department is eternally grateful for the many hours of hard work every day by the staff at Safer Path. They’re totally committed to the safety and wellbeing of the citizens of our community. And for that, we thank them.”
The vigil was especially moving as families of the recent 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.
“We need everyone’s help to fight this battle,” said Williamson. “Let these deaths be a rallying cry for our community. Taking care of each other is a central part of our heritage in rural small-town, Texas. We know the consequences of remaining silent about domestic violence – people are dying.”
A Safer Path Survivor Story
This is a survivor’s story in her own words told to Safer Path Family Violence Center. Jane overcame years of abuse and degradation. She has now rebuilt a life free from violence. Here is her story:
August 27 will burn in my mind for eternity.
“Ma’am … ma’am … you’re OK. We’re here now.” The officer sat me down in a lawn chair and gave me a blanket. In one night, my whole life seemed to explode. There I was, red and blue lights flashing in my driveway, in disbelief. I remember the responders kept asking me if I was OK, but I couldn’t utter a sound. Police were in and out of my home, passing me with a sorrow in their eyes. I was “that woman” … the one you hear about on the news or on social media.
Embarrassed is such an insignificant word when trying to explain how I felt. “Why had this happened?” “What did I do to make him so angry?” “What happens from here?” A flurry of things buzzed around in my head. I was transported to the hospital. My neighbor took care of my youngest son. The officers handed me a statement of my rights as a victim along with a card to a Safer Path. And that is where the process of me being OK began.
The women I encountered there made me feel loved, safe and like I was not alone. They did not look at me with pity in their eyes. They looked at me like a woman who made it. I survived. I had the honor of meeting an advocate who showed me it was all going to be alright. Maybe not that day, maybe not even tomorrow, but eventually, I would feel whole again.
That night was the start of a battle beyond my wildest nightmares! I battled daily to forgive myself for not seeing his destructive ways sooner. I battled to continue seeing the good in people. I battled to continue being a good mom when some days I didn’t want to leave my bed. The days seemed so long and lonely. But the hardest fight I would be in would be to save my three boys. That night almost cost me everything I loved. And THAT was the moment the survivor in me became REAL.
My advocate was there to listen to me cry, listen to me get angry, sit in court for support, and guide me through the steps to be myself again. I am forever grateful to the women devoting their time and energy to saving other women like me from harm. The comfort I felt knowing these amazing women treasured my children was what gave me the strength to get up and STAY UP!
Ladies, saying thank you could never encompass the gratitude my family and I have for all of you. We would have been lost without y’all. It is my privilege to know all of you and I wish the absolute best of life for all of you!