Read more about how Dallas is making unprecedented domestic violence reform in The Dallas Morning News

by Manju Alexander | Jan 24, 2013

Advocates praise Dallas’ domestic violence reform, eye opportunity for further change

By Sarah Mervosh
23 January 2013
The Dallas Morning News

City leaders’ recent resolve to stop domestic violence has made the issue a priority in a way that’s unprecedented in Dallas, but officials can’t let up if they want to address the problem comprehensively, experts say.

After a jump in domestic violence slayings in 2012 that hasn’t seemed to slow down so far this year, leaders in Dallas have said enough is enough.

As part of the charge to raise awareness, advocates, city officials and police gathered Wednesday for a candlelight vigil at City Hall for domestic violence victims.

Mayor Mike Rawlings has also appealed to Dallas’ men to stop domestic violence, a City Council member announced efforts to help curb the problem and the police chief has been asked to make it a priority to serve domestic violence warrants.

Local advocates praised the city’s coordinated response that puts the responsibility where it should be: on the abusers. Jan Langbein, the executive director of Genesis Women’s Shelter for 22 years, said she has never seen a mayor take such a strong stand on this issue.

“Just in the past two weeks, we’ve seen our city turn the corner … from blaming a victim to holding accountable the perpetrator,” Langbein said. “That’s a message that’s heard loudly throughout our community.”

But advocates say it’s only part of the solution.

The voices of city officials play a part in reducing domestic violence by helping sway public opinion, said Paige Flink, executive director of The Family Place shelter.

“It is not going to stop it by itself, but it is an important part of stopping family violence,” Flink said. “We need to look at the whole system.”

The city’s response came days after a man was accused of killing his estranged wife in a UT Southwestern parking garage. Police say Karen Cox Smith, 40, was gunned down by Ferdinand Smith on Jan. 8 while an abuse warrant was outstanding for his arrest. He had been accused in December of trying to strangle his wife.

Police say Smith’s slaying is part of the troubling trend of domestic violence murders, which jumped from 10 to 26 between 2011 and 2012. So far this month, police have reported four in Dallas, as well as several others in surrounding areas, including the murder-suicide of an estranged couple outside their daughter’s birthday party Saturday in Grapevine.

Rawlings’ chief of staff said the mayor had been troubled by recent violence, including the Connecticut school massacre and the uptick in local domestic violence deaths. Smith’s death spurred him to action.

“That tragic incident really kick-started it,” Paula Blackmon said. “That moved it along.”

Smith’s brother, Casey Cox, said he will fight to make sure his sister is not forgotten.

“She would have wanted the next woman suffering from a similar situation to know that silence is not an option,” he said at the vigil Wednesday.

Since Smith’s death, the city has announced that police will prioritize domestic violence arrest warrants for repeat offenders and those who pose an immediate threat. Council member Delia Jasso’s office is also working to put up billboards advertising assistance for victims and to engage places of worship in outreach efforts.

Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said Dallas’ response has laid a strong foundation to combat domestic violence.

“It sounds like an aggressive intervention approach,” she said. “But how are we going to address the prevention angle?”

City officials say they plan to round out their response with prevention, but those initiatives could take time.

Rawlings is planning a rally in the spring to launch an awareness campaign focusing on men, his chief of staff said. Jasso is working with police to raise domestic violence awareness in Dallas schools, but that probably won’t begin until next school year.

The Family Place’s Flink said she, too, has never seen such a promising response from the city. But she also knows it’s important to build on the initial changes.

She said she’d like to see the city impose stronger penalties for domestic violence misdemeanors to deter abusers from escalating violence.

She also sees an opportunity to prevent abuse by reducing unemployment, which she says can play a role in domestic violence.

“It’s something we’ve wished for — for family violence to be a priority, to have it be something that’s a City Hall priority,” Flink said. “They’ve made this commitment, and I just want to see them follow through with it and keep pushing the pedal to the metal.”

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