By Brina Monterroza and Myra Arthur

SAN ANTONIO – It’s a pervasive problem. And in Bexar County and Texas, the numbers show domestic violence is an increasingly deadly problem.

But every single day, there are people working to help save lives and get survivors out of their abusive relationships. One of the tools at their disposal is protective orders. But when it comes to what protective orders are and what they actually do, there’s often confusion.

In this episode of KSAT Explains, we’re breaking down what you need to know about protective orders, as well as hearing from two domestic violence survivors about their experiences and how they got out.

(Watch the full episode on-demand in the video player above.)

SMART. IN-DEPTH. LOCAL: Click here for more episodes of KSAT Explains

Stories of survival: Meet two women who got out of their domestic violence situations

For this episode, we talked to two brave women who survived their abusive relationships and are now on the other side. Elizabeth Rejino, and another survivor who asked that we conceal her identity, are two very different people with very different experiences. But they both escaped their abusers, thanks in part to being able to successfully apply for protective orders.

Click the video player below to hear their stories.

Just a piece of paper?: Protective orders and the Bexar County Family Justice Center

The Bexar County Family Justice Center is one of several local agencies that helps victims of violence.

“What’s fantastic about it is you’re bringing all these different agencies and disciplines, professionals to one location under one roof to be able to provide those services to survivors. So survivors don’t have to go all over town trying to connect the dots for the services they need,” said Crystal Chandler, the executive director of the Bexar County Family Justice Center. “The center acts to connect those dots for them, whatever their particular need is, whether it be with our onsite providers or our community partners that are off site and doing warm referrals.”

The Bexar County Family Justice Center is housed on the second floor of the Archives Building on East Nueva St.
The Bexar County Family Justice Center is housed on the second floor of the Archives Building on East Nueva St. (Copyright 2021 by KSAT – All rights reserved.)

The center offers adult counseling, child therapy, clothing, legal help, financial literacy courses and other resources.

The center also houses the Protective Order Unit, which includes victim advocates, paralegals, prosecutors and an investigator to help victims through the process of obtaining a protective order.

protective order is often confused with a restraining order. Restraining orders are used in civil lawsuits. They can be used to protect a person or property. If an abuser violates a protective order, the consequences can be severe. They can be arrested or charged with a crime.

“Some people say that protective orders are just a piece of paper and, I guess, in a way they are, but how they empower a victim, a survivor and their children is priceless,” Chandler said.

Most of the center’s referrals come from law enforcement or an outside agency.

“Nine times out of 10 with law enforcement, they’re being referred to us to get a protective order to remove either the abuser from the situation or get the victim and the children out of this situation,” said Nathan Hanson, a crime victim liaison.

The Family Justice Center doesn’t grant protective orders. There is a process that the center will walk victims through before a district court judge can sign off on an order.
The Family Justice Center doesn’t grant protective orders. There is a process that the center will walk victims through before a district court judge can sign off on an order. (Copyright 2021 by KSAT – All rights reserved.)

The Family Justice Center doesn’t grant protective orders. There is a process that the center will walk victims through before a district court judge can sign off on an order. Advocates and staff will talk with victims to find out what the best plan of action is for each victim. A protective order may not be for every person.

“Maybe the client just wants counseling. Maybe they’re not ready to leave their abuser because that’s all they’ve known,” Hanson said.

A victim can fill out an intake form online if they would like to seek a protective order. They can also call the center at 210-631-0100 and staff will help them fill out the form over the phone.

Once the form is completed, a crime victim liaison will contact the victim to gather more information.

“Within 24 hours, a member of the staff is reaching back out to them, making contact and following up on their interview,” said Jordan Cadenhead, a felony prosecutor.

The victim must also fill out a danger assessment, which will provide the center with a score to determine the level of risk for each applicant.

“During the danger assessment, it’s measuring the lethality score. How serious of an incident it is. How likely is it that the abuser has the ability to kill our victims,” Hanson said

If a victim indicates that a weapon was used during their abuse or that they were strangled, that would indicate their case needs to be placed on a high-risk list. The staff will move quickly to file a temporary protective order.

“We’re talking three days. That’s how quickly they move through applying for a protective order to having a temporary protective order that’s effective and in full force and effect. And that’s a conservative number. Most of the time, it’s done within 24 hours,” Cadenhead said.

A low score on the assessment doesn’t necessarily mean the victim will not get placed on the high-risk list. Cadenhead said the staff may notice red flags that the assessment wasn’t able to capture.

During the process, a victim will also work with an advocate who can help with evidence for their case.

The Bexar County District Attorney’s Office list the following items that can bolster protective order applications:

  • A police report or a police report case number.
  • If a police report has not been made, the Family Justice Center can offer guidance.
  • Photo(s) of injuries.
  • Copies of electronic communications between the victim and abuser (e-mails, social media chats).
  • Letter(s) received from the abuser.
  • Video and audio recording(s) from the abuser.
  • A current address for the abuser.
  • Valid state identification document.

Once a judge reviews an application and decides to grant a temporary protective order, the victim will be issued a date for a permanent protective order hearing. The abuser is then served with a notice of the hearing and any orders approved by the judge.

Serving the protective order is Yvette Martinez’s job. She’s an investigator with the Bexar County Criminal District Attorney’s Office. She told us that the job of tracking down the abuser is sometimes a tricky one.

“I use a lot of law enforcement tools, and I run people through to find where they live, where they work,” she said. “It’s basically all hours of the day and night.”

The staff at the center understand that this process can be arduous. They understand that protective orders are not bulletproof vests. Some of them have lost clients.

“I specifically remember … one of the clients that had just been through our office, left our office and she was murdered outside of our office,” said Irma Alvarez, the center’s Protective Order Supervisor. “We felt horrible. There [are] no words to say.”

Combating domestic violence

It may be impossible to end domestic violence. There are no clear-cut, easy solutions, but it’s important not to turn away from the problem. Because combating domestic violence requires awareness and compassion.

According to the Texas Council on Family Violence, 228 Texans died because of domestic violence last year – a 23 percent increase from 2019. In Bexar County, 17 people died due to domestic violence in 2020, compared to 13 in 2019.

(Copyright 2021 by KSAT – All rights reserved.)

Knowing how to spot red flags is key to prevention. Here are a few, courtesy of the National Domestic Violence Hotline:

  • Embarrassing or putting you down
  • Controlling who you see, where you go, or what you do
  • Keeping you or discouraging you from seeing your friends or family
  • Preventing you from making your own decisions
  • Preventing you from working or attending school
  • Blaming you for the abuse, or acting like it’s not really happening
  • Destroying your property or threatening to hurt or kill your pets
  • Threatening to commit suicide because of something you’ve done

If you know someone in a domestic violence situation, compassion and patience can go a long way. The experts we talked to said a fear of being judged and not being believed are some of the factors that stop victims from reaching out for help.

But reaching out is the first step.

Now that the unidentified survivor we spoke to is no longer living with her abuser, she’s able to enjoy some of the simple things that many others might take for granted.

“I’m able to sleep. I am able to buy myself the basic necessities,” she said. “I’m furthering my education.”

Rejino told us there are beautiful things on the other side of this struggle.

“So don’t give up,” she said. “I’ve seen people give up and they end up right back in the same position.”

Domestic violence resources if you or someone you know needs help: