Top: SafePlace’s emergency shelter. Bottom: Families can live in rooms like these at SafePlace for 3 months. who understand such subtleties, who recognize the dynamics of power and control that underlie the violence, and who will work not only cooperatively with each other, but also with counselors and victims’ advocates. In 1989, Austin Police Chief Jim Everett convened the Austin-Travis County Family Violence Task Force. It has met monthly ever since. The task force now has 19 member organizations in and out of government. It serves as a common space where law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, legal-aid attorneys, and victims’ groups can lace their efforts together. A series of progressive law enforcement leaders including Everett, a number of leaders in the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, and Constable Bruce Elfant, have devoted time and resources to the effort. The result is the kind of cooperation that few cities in the nation have achieved. \(The Austin police recently even set up a specialized unit within the domestic violence division to handle the most horrific casesa unit that police leadership credits with reducing Austin homicides related to domestic violence from nine in 2005 to four in 2006 to The task force has been the wellspring for the city’s other innovative approaches: creating counseling programs for batterers, pushing to ensure that defendants’ criminal histories get to judges before bond is set, and stressing the use of civil protective orders for victims. In 1997, the task force helped marshal federal money to set up a one-stop office where victims could access many of the services they would need without driving all over town as their cases stalled in the bureaucracy. It was a place where officers from the domestic violence units of the Austin police, the county sheriff’s office, prosecutors, counselors from SafePlace, and civil attorneys could all work under one roof. They called it the Family Violence Protection Team. The effort has proved wildly successful, though it’s not as coordinated as it once was. Last year, the Austin police tried to move the office to a more remote location. Some refused to follow, and the protection team, while still useful, is now scattered. “It’s nothing like it was:’ says Jim Sylvester, a longtime member of the task force and the sheriff’s department. “It’s unbelievable how the landscape has changed in just one year. It’s not as cohesive:’ Sylvester wants to establish a Family Justice Center in Austin, modeled on a path-breaking effort in San Diego, that would mesh services for domestic violence, rape, and child abuse under one roof. It would house the relevant parts of the criminal justice system, medical staff, counselors, victims’ advocates, and private attorneys. The idea has met with resistance, and funding is uncertain. “We have a lot of people come from around the country and try to duplicate or emulate what we’re doing;’ Sylvester says. “But we’re trying to take it to the next level and get that family justice center going:’ Gail Rice, director of community advocacy at SafePlace and a longtime member of the task force, points to another unique effort in Austin. The city allows legal-aid attorneys to visit the jail to sift through arrest reports and pick out cases that need extra attention. They then contact the victims to ask if they need an emergency protective order, which bars alleged abusers from any contact for up to 90 days. The process leads to hundreds of emergency protective orders a year in Austin. MARCH 7, 2008 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17
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