Family Violence Rises, and Becomes More Brutal




JOHN DAVENPORT/jdavenport@express-news.net

Kisha Ward has been paralyzed from the waist down ever since a bullet tore into her spine in 2004.

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By Peter J. Holley - Express-News

Like so many times family violence is perpetrated, police say that Tabari Strong made his violent intentions known.

Hours before police allege that Strong burst into Vernita Bardwell's Northwest Side apartment Nov. 14 with a shotgun, killing her and her friend Tamika Coleman, he told the mother of his son that he intended to take her life, said Bardwell's mother, Rose Sledge.

After several days of arguing, Bardwell was at Strong's apartment to pick up their son, Sledge said, when Strong showed her the shotgun shells he had stored beneath his bed.

“We just thought he was rambling,” Sledge recalled after her daughter told her about the threat. “He had said those kind of things before, and so I don't think Vernita was too worried about it.”

Bardwell reported the threat to police later that evening, but by then it may have been too late. Embittered by child support payments, Strong, 35, was charged the next day with double murder. Police say he also abducted his 8-year-old son and led them on a frenzied, mid-morning search for the child.

Like thousands of women across San Antonio, Bardwell fell victim to a wave of aggravated family violence in the city over the past year.

While police reports of family violence cases increased 3.5 percent from 2008 to 2009, those that involved more serious injury have soared 87 percent, according to the San Antonio Police Department. In addition to the statistics, those who work with domestic violence victims report that the nature of the violence has grown more brutal.

It's a problem found across the country and officials believe it's caused, in part, by the recession. Family violence is known to parallel unemployment.

Police were called to family violence incidents nearly 10 percent more times last year than in 2008, and the city saw 24 family violence-related homicides, up from 23 the year before, according to a San Antonio Express-News tally.

The surge in aggravated family violence has captured the attention of Police Chief William McManus.

The stoical face he offers to the public at crime scenes doesn't reflect the anguish he expresses to community leaders in private, according to Patricia Castillo, executive director of the Putting an End to Abuse through Community Efforts Initiative.

Only then, according to those who have spoken with him, does the chief's frustration over increasing numbers boil over.

“The numbers are up for family violence,” McManus acknowledged in a recent interview. “I'd rather the numbers be up because more women are reporting the violence, than see the numbers down and know that women are not reporting it.”

Castillo agreed, arguing, paradoxically, that increased violence may be a sign of progress.

“When a woman is trying to escape, that's when the abuser comes down on you even harder — they're losing control,” she said. “That's when the situation becomes the worst and the most dangerous. Right now, we're in the middle of the storm.”

McManus may have to wait for the economy to improve before he sees a change in the numbers, according to Brian Withrow, an associate professor of criminal justice at Texas State University.

Withrow said fluctuations in family violence are closely tied to a city's unemployment rate.

At 7.7 percent, the San Antonio area's January unemployment rate is below the national average of 9.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the area's unemployment rate — the highest in two decades — has more than doubled since it was 3.6 percent in spring 2008, roughly following the same rise in aggravated family violence reports.

“It's extremely common to find family violence increasing during periods of economic stress, when families tend to break their routines,” Withrow said. “Suddenly, you have one or more parents at home all day, unable to work. There are financial challenges as well as ego issues that create an immense amount of stress for a family that suddenly finds itself in close proximity day after day.”

The lucky ones

At the Battered Women and Children's Shelter, a steady stream of women arrive in the middle of the night with missing teeth, knotty, swollen faces and bloodied patches of hair ripped from their scalps. Maybe they've had time to pack a suitcase, maybe not. Often, a trash bag suffices.

They are the lucky ones. Not only have they managed to get out, officials said, but they've found shelter from the violence and abuse that threaten to destroy their lives.

After polling 600 domestic violence shelters nationwide last year, the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation reported in May that 75 percent saw an increase in women seeking assistance since the recession intensified in September 2008. About 73 percent of the shelters attributed the rise to financial stres.

San Antonio's shelter is no different. Its population has ballooned 73 percent over the past year to more than 170 residents a day, according to Martha Pelaez, the director.

Lounges have been converted into bedrooms, the dining room remodeled and extra kitchen staff hired to handle the meal-time onslaught. Cramped bedrooms that used to hold one family now hold three. Quiet hallways now echo with the sound of rambunctious children who make up three-quarters of the facility's population.

The shelter's expenses have increased more than 50 percent over the past 18 months while donations have dropped 20 percent over the same period, staff members said. As the shelter teeters on the brink of capacity, Pelaez has begun contemplating the possibility of opening up her own home to the swelling number of victims.

“There are patterns throughout the year when domestic violence increases — football season, late summer, Fiesta and the holidays,” Pelaez said. “But there is no seasonal pattern that can explain what's happened in San Antonio over the last year. This is unlike anything we've ever seen.”

Pursuit in hours

The increase in violence over the past year comes as authorities are more aggressively pursuing offenders by “walking warrants.” In addition, police have added a Community Response Team to each substation and increased the use of Family Assistance Crises Team volunteers.

Started by McManus in February 2007, the change in the warrant process has officers walking arrest warrants to the district attorney's office, where they are filed on the spot when the cases are deemed aggravated. That means there are signs of strangulation, the presence of weapons, a history of violence or when a suspect has fled.

Under the previous policy, officers filed arrest warrants with the district attorney's office, and it could take days — if not weeks — for the warrant to be filed in court and an arrest to occur. Now, officers with warrants in hand can pursue alleged attackers within hours of a family violence incident.

That could explain, in part, the increase in aggravated family violence warrants from 426 in 2007 to 798 last year, according to police.

The addition of a Community Response Team to each substation brings to six the total number of police officers and caseworkers who respond to family violence at each of the city's six stations.

FACT volunteers — who provide family violence victims with counseling and refer them to city services — not only work out of the substations, but as of July began riding with officers.

The volunteers — many of whom are social workers or former victims — are seen as more approachable than officers, said Jane Schaefer, a Community Services supervisor who oversees the program.

Though ride-alongs are limited to the north and west substations, Schaefer said she plans to expand them to every substation by the summer. In written evaluations of FACT volunteers, Schaefer has noticed a shift in how police view their work.

“The relationship with police is getting better and better,” she said. “Compared to 10 years ago, there's a lot more acceptance of the volunteers, the role they can play and the skills they have.”

That acceptance begins with police training, Castillo said.

Nearly a decade after she last spoke to officers, Castillo has begun teaching the weekly family violence portion of the state-mandated training. She discusses the dynamics of family violence, explains recent trends and reminds the classes about community resources. Though she used to encounter skepticism when she spoke to SAPD's largely male audience, Castillo said attitudes have evolved.

“Challenging our Police Department to act in a different way is not an easy feat — it's a big change,” she said. “We're going up against deeply rooted, strongly held attitudes of etitlement that have been with us since the beginning of time. We've got to put it in that big picture context.”

She added, “Nevertheless, McManus gets it.”

For many family violence victims, such as Kisha Ward, changes in police protocol didn't come soon enough.

Ward displays the marks of her last relationship: a faded line marks the spot where the butt of a pistol cracked open her head in 2000, requiring nine staples. Indentations on her right biceps are tooth marks. But the obvious tell-tale sign is her wheelchair.

For the past five years, Ward has been paralyzed from the waist down after a bullet tore into her spine. Shot by the father of her two children on a rainy afternoon in 2004, she still can't tolerate the smell of an approaching storm.

These days, she takes comfort in counseling other women who find themselves immersed in family violence as a FACT volunteer and taking care of her two elementary school-age daughters, who are prohibited from uttering their father's name.

“It's been five years of hell on earth,” she said, looking at her legs. “But I'm still not rid of him.”

Retirement on hold

Four months after her daughter was killed, Sledge and her two grandchildren are slowly adapting after their family was ripped apart. Left homeless by their mother's killing, the grandchildren have moved into Sledge's Northeast Side house.

A decade after her parenting days ended, Sledge, a full-time manager at Chester's Hamburgers, feels like someone hit the rewind button. Thoughts of retirement have been replaced by piles of laundry and more household chores.

“Can you imagine being 52 years old and trying to raise two young children all over again?” she said, contemplating ideas for dinner after a long day at work. “I thought I was done.”

There are moments during her granddaughter's basketball games when Sledge catches Aiyanna, 12, gazing into the stands after a big play, her eyes bouncing from face to face. It is unusual behavior for the talented power forward, whose on-court focus has led coaches to mark her as a potential college prospect.

Not only did Aiyanna lose her mother, Sledge said, she also lost her biggest fan — a woman whose megaphone voice bellowed instructions and encouragement from the sidelines.

“You can see it on her face,” Sledge said. “She's used to looking up and seeing her mom cheering in the stands, but she's not there anymore.”

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