Reports of domestic violence on the rise in Harris County

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Six months after leaving an abusive relationship, 28-year-old Lindsay Ferrill’s ex-boyfriend murdered her in front of her 3-year-old daughter.

Her mother, Shari Nightingale, now shares this story with local student and community groups to educate them about the realities of domestic abuse in dating relationships. She said more than half of teenagers have experienced dating violence or know someone who has.

In partnership with the Cy-Fair-based nonprofit Shield Bearer, Nightingale serves as the director of the Lindsay’s Light dating violence prevention program, which teaches young adults to recognize and seek help for the warning signs that could lead to dating violence.

“One of the big things that I saw was any time my daughter was with us, he would constantly text or call wanting to know where she is,” Nightingale said. “We could always tell just the change in her demeanor when she was being bombarded like that.”

Texas data shows in 2018 the state saw its highest number of domestic violence homicides in at least the last decade. The Texas Council on Family Violence reported 211 individuals were killed by their intimate partners statewide in 2018—a 27.9% increase from 2017. About 82% of these victims were women ranging in age from 16 to 85.

The organization’s reports showed Harris County has consistently led the state in domestic violence homicides with 42 women killed by their male intimate partners in 2018.

Thecia Jenkins, a training director with the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, said the number of individuals in abusive relationships is even higher than data shows. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Justice found only 10%-25% of intimate partner violence victims sought any form of victim services.

“We have a tendency to think that this issue only lies with individuals who are in poverty, and I can assure you ... domestic violence is an equal-opportunity provider,” Jenkins said.

Defining abuse

Mikisha Hooper, the family violence services manager at the Texas Council on Family Violence, said Harris County’s domestic violence fatality rates had previously not seemed unusual due to the county’s high population.

However, the county experienced a 40% increase in the number of homicides between 2017 and 2018, bringing the per-capita rate to 1.8 per 100,000 residents—the highest statewide. Hooper said Hurricane Harvey may have contributed to the unusually high rate, as the 2017 storm interrupted services at family violence centers and increased stress on relationships.

Northwest Assistance Ministries—which serves north Houston, including parts of Cy-Fair—receives hundreds of calls per month from victims and survivors of domestic abuse, concerned family members and friends, and referrals from law enforcement agencies and hospitals, officials said.

Sheryl Johnson is the director of NAM’s Family Violence Center and has recently entered her 20th year working with the center. She said the perceived increase in domestic violence cases may be due to increased reporting as a result of more widespread education and awareness of different kinds of abuse.

“One person in that relationship is constantly looking for ways to have power and control over the other,” she said. “By keeping them off balance, isolated [and] under their thumb, they continue to maintain that power and control, which means the other person doesn’t have any. They become a shell of a person in many ways because they’re not able to experience life as safely and fully as the rest of us do.”

Johnson said when it comes to domestic abuse, people typically think of physical violence in a husband-and-wife relationship. But abuse can also be emotional, psychological, sexual or spiritual in dating relationships of all ages, same-sex relationships and even roommate relationships, she said.

Clients will sometimes minimize their experiences in abusive relationships because they have not been physically injured, but other forms of abuse can be just as detrimental to individuals, relationships and families, Johnson said.

“What we traditionally think of in terms of emotional abuse is the name-calling, the controlling, trying to limit who they see or who they talk to—things that if somebody said or did one time would hurt your feelings or make you feel bad about yourself,” she said. “But when it starts to become abusive, happening over and over again, it actually starts changing how you feel about yourself and how you present yourself.”

Nightingale said stressful situations such as financial crisis or substance abuse can contribute to an uptick in domestic violence cases.

Even then, it can be difficult for victims to leave abusive situations because they genuinely care about their abusers, are concerned about how they might function on their own, have been told they are not worthy of being in any other relationship or are afraid the abuser might retaliate.

“By the time this really comes to light in a relationship, they’re so entrenched in that relationship either financially or just emotionally, or they have children,” Nightingale said. “There’s always something that keeps them there, and there’s a lot of manipulation that goes on with the abuser.”

Local support

Support for domestic abuse victims at organizations such as NAM and Shield Bearer typically start with a confidential phone call. From there, intake specialists determine which resources would be the most helpful, including counseling, legal work, financial assistance, case management, support groups or connection to a residential shelter.

While these services are available to victims and survivors regionally, Johnson said those who do not have adequate transportation or money to put gas in their cars have limited access.

“With increased funding we could provide additional crisis intervention services for clients,” Johnson said. “Currently we are limited on funds for emergency hotel stays, taxi rides to shelters or other safe places or bus tickets back to family or a safe place.”

She said the community can support by donating toiletries and gift cards to help meet survivors’ day-to-day needs.

An average of 1,000 calls are made to NAM’s Family Violence Center each month, and Johnson said she has seen a slight decline in calls in recent years.

“One trend that we have seen in Texas is that undocumented individuals are more hesitant or fearful of calling,” she said. “We are here to serve anyone who is suffering domestic violence or abuse in their relationship. Regardless of whether couples are married, dating or living together; or gender; or race; or religion, our advocates are available 24/7 to help those in crisis.”

Area organizations also educate teenagers in local schools about establishing healthy relationship patterns through Lindsay’s Light and NAM’s Youth Empowerment Program.

“I can’t really stop domestic violence in adult relationships once it’s occurred,” Johnson said. “The only way that we’re really going to be able to have an impact is if we start teaching people what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like before they start forming those kinds of serious relationships.”

Expanding resources

A 2019 report from the Texas Council on Family Violence made several recommendations for how communities and governmental funders can better handle domestic violence, including increasing housing options for survivors, expanding language services, increasing prevention efforts, allowing family violence agencies more flexibility in funding and targeting outreach to underserved communities.

At the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, spokesperson Michael Kolenc said the office received a two-year grant of $2.65 million in October to continue offering a mobile crisis intervention team, which launched in January. The team goes to the scene of high-risk domestic violence cases on weekends and consists of staff trained in safety, crisis intervention and the dynamics of domestic violence.

To help prevent further cases of domestic violence, county commissioners voted at an Oct. 29 meeting to expand a pilot program known as “Safe Surrender” to all of the county’s 22 felony district courts. The program calls on individuals charged with a domestic violence incident or who have had a protective order filed against them to temporarily surrender their firearms to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office or to a licensed dealer until the case is resolved.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said around 40% of homicides in Harris County have a domestic violence connection, and state data reported 59% of domestic abuse fatalities were caused by firearms in 2018.

“We think it’s sound public policy, being respectful of Second Amendment rights but also recognizing the volatility of many situations,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a win-win for everybody. If we can prevent one domestic violence death, that’s a success.”

While these nonresidential assistance programs are in place, officials said there are only seven residential shelters for domestic abuse victims in the Greater Houston area with about 300 beds total, and more resources are always needed to keep up with increasing demand of hundreds of women and children in need of assistance each month.

Johnson said one misconception people have about domestic abuse is that it does not take place near them. But the issue plagues all demographics in all neighborhoods, she said.

“It happens in our less affluent communities as often as it happens in our golf course communities,” she said. “The difference is those that live in the golf course communities often have more resources and don’t necessarily come to an agency such as ours.”

Danica Smithwick


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