Bexar County judicial system calls for self-review of family violence cases

Commissioners Court will fund the first year of a three-year independent assessment

SAN ANTONIO – The Bexar County Judicial System is ready for accountability when it comes to its collective handling of family violence cases.

That accountability has been demanded by the county and some judges, with direction from the Collaborative Commission on Domestic Violence.

Last week, the Bexar County Commissioners Court approved a three-year independent study, hoping to reveal flaws and gaps in communication.

In a recent City of San Antonio survey conducted by Metro Health’s Violence Prevention Department, domestic violence survivors have painted a clear picture.

One survivor wrote, “Going through a divorce due to domestic violence in Bexar County is a joke. I lost everything, including my children.”

A mother wrote, “Ordered visitation subjected [the children] to ongoing abuse until they reached 18.”

Another said, “The courts give the abuser 50/50 custody without first evaluating the abuser.”

It’s a broken judicial system that the courts themselves are acknowledging.

On Oct. 11th, the Bexar County Commissioners Court approved a proposal for a three-year assessment of our local justice system’s response to domestic violence. The proposal was brought forward by Commissioner Justin Rodriguez and the Bexar County Office of Judicial Services in partnership with the Collaborative Commission on Domestic Violence (CCDV).

The three-year $750,000 assessment is titled “A Safer Bexar County, Assessing Court Systems, Connecting Community & Investing in Safety.”

It will be conducted by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) and the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).

The county approved funding for year one, totaling $226,149. The county plans to continue to review and fund the assessment each year.

  • Year 1 will focus on civil courts, protective orders, children and divorce with the $226,149 price tag.
  • Year 2 will focus on law enforcement and criminal courts, costing $190,087.
  • Year 3 will address how the system will implement the strategic plan and will cost $333,764.

“They can conduct interviews. They will do court-watching. They’re going to walk through the case as if they were a victim or offender. They will get input from the victims and survivors but also caseworkers and offenders,” said 150th Civil District Judge Monique Diaz.

Diaz is co-chair of the Collaborative Commission on Domestic violence. The commission joins leaders from every sector of the community to figure out how they can collectively better deal with family violence.

This new future assessment leaves advocates cautiously hopeful.

“I hope that it is done well and correctly, and we don’t continue to move on as is,” said Christina Campos, director of Community Integrated Services at Family Violence Prevention Services.

Campos supervises caseloads, works one-on-one with clients, and is a Child Protective Services liaison for FVPS.

The stories of her clients are devastating. Many say abusers getting visitation or custody is a huge issue.

“Giving them unauthorized access to children without any type of custody order, supervision, appropriate supports,” Campos said.

Campos said many of her cases result in the abuser getting custody or visitation with the children.

“A lot of times, the victim’s parents feel like they need to revoke a protective order or drop charges or go back into the home, just for the simple fact of keeping those kids safe, making sure that there’s not any violence perpetrated towards them or around them,” Campos explained.

Diaz said the Collaborative Commission has already identified many of the gaps in the system.

The main one is civil and criminal courts have completely different technical systems and need better communication methods.

“When we’re determining custody and visitation arrangements, we need to know there’s a no-contact order on the criminal side and communicate with one another about how those orders are going to work together – in favor of the family instead of against the family,” Diaz said.

Cross-communication has also been an issue when it comes to firearms.

“When a criminal defendant is convicted in a domestic violence case, they’re prohibited from possessing a firearm. In a civil case, that prohibition takes place much earlier. So making sure the folks at the criminal side know there’s a prohibition against firearms already in place on the civil side, that criminal judges can act upon,” Diaz explained.

Campos sees that communication gap often in the cases she oversees.

“It creates confusion, and honestly, not just for the victim. It’s an opportunity for offenders, perpetrators, to kind of fall through the cracks,” Campos said.

She said it’s crucial for those in the judicial system to realize if an offender does not get help and intervention to stop the abusive behavior, it will continue, and so will the cycle of generational violence.

Campos often feels like she’s fighting an uphill battle, saying, “I have had clients who have been thrown in jail. I’ve had clients who have repeatedly requested protective orders and been denied. I have had clients who have not had the money to continue the legal fight against perpetrators and offenders.”

Diaz and Campos agree everyone in the judicial system needs better education about what domestic violence entails, what survivors go through, and why trauma victims may exhibit certain behaviors.

“Unfortunately, I have been in courtrooms where there just hasn’t been an understanding or an acknowledgment of the domestic violence,” Campos said.

When Diaz was asked if she was prepared to hear there may be failures in a court system that she is a part of, she quickly said, “Absolutely. We’re expecting that. The whole point of the CCDV was to break down these silos to really start looking introspectively at ourselves about where there’s room for improvement and putting in the hard work to improve.”

Perhaps what’s been missing for years is that introspection and openness to criticism or new ideas.

Exhausted advocates like Campos have high hopes that this assessment will bring that much-needed change.

If you or someone you know is suffering from abuse, there are many resources for you. Head to the KSAT Domestic Violence Resources Page for a full list.

You can call the Family Violence Prevention Services hotline at (210) 733-8810. The organization also runs the Battered Women and Children’s Shelter.

You can also call Bexar County Justice Center at (210) 633-0100.

You can always call or text 988 to reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline center.

About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.