Why Philadelphia City Hall needs a dedicated advocate for domestic violence survivors

Azucena Ugarte

Azucena Ugarte

In the city of Philadelphia, police officers respond to over 100,000 domestic-related calls each year. And those are the cases we’re aware of. The effect of domestic violence is far-reaching and many instances of abuse go unreported. It impacts our entire community and is one of the biggest public health epidemics our city faces today. For many families in and around the city, domestic violence is a daily issue.

Philadelphia has some great champions of domestic violence prevention. Even so, domestic violence has been marginalized, and the problem has gone unaddressed due to the absence of any city infrastructure, authority, or galvanizing vision that could turn the tide of this epidemic. Until now.

On Tuesday, Oct. 4, Mayor Jim Kenney announced the creation of a new role within City Hall with the goal of developing a coordinated response to domestic violence. It was a moment 10 years in the making, and one that Women Against Abuse was grateful to be a part of.

The journey to this amazing day began Mayor John Street’s Domestic Violence Task Force called for the creation of two subcommittees: one on law enforcement and another on health and human services. Not long after establishing these subcommittees, Philadelphia’s Domestic Violence Law Enforcement Committee was formed to coordinate efforts by the city’s police force, the district attorney’s office, the courts, probation offices, and the advocate community.

It was four years ago when Women Against Abuse first encouraged the city’s Health and Human Services cabinet to begin taking a holistic look at relational violence and its impact on families and the community. Former Deputy Police Commissioner Pat Fox was always careful to remind us that, in cases of domestic violence, law enforcement should be the last response. Sadly, in many cases it is the only response. To tackle an epidemic that impacts our entire community, it is essential for us to identify all the possible doors a survivor could pass through on their journey to safety and recovery.

Regardless of how a person first encounters this coordinated response — whether it is through child welfare, a homeless shelter, or an emergency call to 911 — our goal as a city is to make sure that each and every provider is trained and ready to give assistance that is compassionate and empowering. Women Against Abuse is co-leading a collaborative effort comprising several dedicated partners and provider agencies to enable meaningful progress for the survivors we serve through unified data collection, universal screening to identify domestic and other overlapping forms of abuse, new interventions, and trainings and messaging that communicates our service approach.

We are thrilled to see Mayor Kenney’s administration take a major step toward making Philadelphia a national leader in coordinated response to domestic violence. We are also honored by the mayor’s appointment of Azucena Ugarte as the city’s first Director of Domestic Violence Strategies. She is a tireless and expert advocate who has led Women Against Abuse’s prevention and education efforts for over 10 years. Azucena’s expertise, along with the city’s commitment to creating an infrastructure that supports and empowers those impacted by domestic violence, will provide the leadership that is necessary to take the work of many advocates, administrators, survivors, and community members to the next level.

Domestic violence is at the core of many of the health and social issues our community suffers, including homelessness, community violence, addiction, financial insecurity, and educational barriers. Women Against Abuse’s 2016 iPledge Campaign focused on children and domestic violence, because we know there can be no safe children without safe families. No safe streets without safe homes. And there should be no wrong door for those experiencing domestic violence to find help before it’s too late.

We have come a long way as a city, and the creation of the Director of Domestic Violence Strategies position sends a strong message to the rest of our nation that now is the time to make our communities safer for everyone. We hope our efforts will improve access to greater opportunities for healing and encourage more Philadelphians to raise their voices against violence in their homes and in their neighborhoods.

The end of domestic violence begins when we work together. It begins with you.

Jeannine L. Lisitski is the executive director and president of Women Against Abuse.

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