The battle against the coronavirus pandemic that has badly impacted Hidalgo County will one day end, but the fight against the virus that is domestic violence is one that is as old as time.

But that won’t stop first responders, prosecutors and community advocates from providing resources for victims and working to seek justice against abusers while embracing new technology and methods to put more tools in the hands of those suffering abuse.

In that spirit, the Hidalgo County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, the Texas Council on Family Violence, Justice Alert Technology and Mujeres Unidas gathered for a virtual press conference Thursday morning to commemorate the beginning of Domestic Violence Awareness Month — an always important topic highlighted in 2020 by difficulties and stressors imposed by stay-at-home orders and the ever present coronavirus that has left more than 1,000 dead here.

And so far this year, domestic violence has had deadly consequences in Hidalgo County, as noted by Unidas Mujeres Executive Director Estella De Anda, who has worked for decades here to provide a safe place and resources to the victims of domestic violence.

“This year, we had in our county, we had four women that were killed, one male and two police officers responding to domestic violence … when I read the story about the latest victim, I became very disheartened,” De Anda said. “This particular case, I was very disheartened, that despite all the outreach and work … we were not able to reach this person. She was 37-years-old. She was killed at the hands of her husband, leaving behind two small children and family members.”

De Anda is referring to Melissa Banda, who was kidnapped and murdered by her ex-husband on Aug. 6.

If the allegations against her ex-husband, 40-year-old Richard Ford, are true, he is the face of the worst case scenario for a victim of domestic abuse.

Court records indicate Banda had taken out a protective order against the man on Feb. 28 after he assaulted her and threatened their children during an argument over assets. They were going through a divorce.

Three months later, on June 30, McAllen police say Ford violated that protective order by calling her and staying quiet on the line.

Then, on Aug. 6, Ford is accused of kidnapping Banda in broad daylight, murdering her less than an hour later and dumping her body at the end of a road north of Donna.

Ford is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

While this disheartened De Anda because she couldn’t reach Banda, she decided she needed to do more and recalled how Mujeres Unidas sheltered more than 200 people this year and provided outreach services to hundreds.

“So as I thought about it, I said, this is not the time to drop out. This is a time that we need to get together and address this serious problem in our community. We have the tools. We have the passion. We have the people in our county that can make that change,” De Anda said.

Those people include the District Attorney Office’s Victims Unit Director Rosie Martinez and the 23 staffers in the unit.

Since the unit’s creation in 2015, after District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez Jr. created it after he was elected, Martinez said it has assisted nearly 29,000 victims and provided 88,000 different services ranging from accompanying people to court, indictment notification, follow-up calls, crime victim compensation and restitution, referrals to community programs, safety planning and helping with protective order applications.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the DA’s Office has worked to expand access to protective order applications by creating a phone number, (956) 292)-7613, that people can call where a DA’s office employee will be there to help people fill out a protective order application.

Amy Cantu, chief prosecutor with the DA’s Domestic Violence Unit, said their office currently partners with 10 law enforcement agencies in assisting people with protective order applications.

Last year, Cantu said they reviewed nearly 1,600 protective order applications, up from the average of 1,400 per year. And this year, Cantu said they’ll likely surpass last year as they’ve already reviewed 1,200 applications with four months still remaining in the year.

And that’s likely because of coronavirus pandemic stressors — a point highlighted by Gloria Terry, the executive director of the Texas Council on Family Violence.

Terry said her organization learned that after Category 4 Hurricane Harvey rolled over Houston causing wide-scale flooding and damaging homes, the stressors associated with that disaster created an increase in domestic violence and an increase in the severity of that violence that disproportionately affected women.

“We need to brace ourselves for that reality,” Terry said.

But like De Anda, the executive director of Mujeres Unidas, said the days of sweeping domestic violence under the rug are long gone and the partnerships established in Hidalgo County to provide services for victims and to hunt down and punish those convicted of domestic abuse remain in place and are stronger than ever.

“It is our business,” De Anda said of domestic abuse. “We live in this community and we all want to live in a community that is safe for everyone.”

Rodriguez, the District Attorney, also touched on the same line as De Anda.

“We will continue to take an aggressive approach,” Rodriguez said. “The time for complacency is gone. It’s long gone. It’s passed and from another era.”

He also had a message for abusers.

“Stop. Stop ruining lives. Stop ruining families. Stop ruining children’s lives,” Rodriguez said. “We must break this cycle. You need to stop. All of us here stand before you to stand up against domestic violence because we care and we will continue. We’re not going to stop.”

First-in-the-nation pilot program unveiled | Staff Report 

Last year, Texas Council on Family Violence Executive Director Gloria Terry said there were more than 200,000 domestic violence calls to law enforcement and approximately 71,000 people, mostly women and children, sought services because their homes were not safe.
And 185 people died. Their ages ranged from 15 to 87, Terry said.

“When you think about a 15-year-old, her biggest concern should be her next Tik Tok video and when you think about the 87-year-old, she should be enjoying her golden years … and unfortunately, her life was ended tragically,” Terry said.

Terry said the Texas Council on Family Violence looks at this data to analyze it and look for trends her organization can do to implement policy, work on training and determine best practices.

“So we know that we constantly have to be looking at other interventions and strategies to impact change,” Terry said.

And the seed of a new partnership between the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office, the Texas Council on Family Violence and Justice Alert Technology was planted last year when Terry was introduced to an app called the Victim Initiated Notification Safety App.

“I was really intrigued with thinking what went behind it,” Terry said. “We’re not easy to convince.”

The application needed to be designed in a way that would protect victims and allow them to have control of their safety. So they examined it from every angle.

And on Thursday morning, during the virtual news conference, Terry announced the partnership and Candice La Grange-Sigue, the founder of the app, and a survivor of childhood domestic abuse, unveiled the software, telling viewers that it is designed to empower victims.

“With the use of the technology, we are giving victims an extra resource to combat domestic violence in the palm of their hands,” La Grange-Sigue said.

Her partner, Juan Cano, a former investigator and co-founder of the app, demonstrated how once opened, the tap of a button will activate an emergency recording. Once activated, the app starts recording audio and video for 30 sends and then sends it to the law enforcement agency where the user is registered. There is also a way to send the alert immediately, Cano explained.

The video and audio are timestamped and GPS coordinates are included.

It’s designed for easy access during a crucial time, Cano said.

The app, however, isn’t immediately available.

Rosie Martinez, the DA’s office’s Victims Unit director, said this is pilot program that will go through a series of phases before it goes live in the community. Martinez said they want to make sure it’s a victim-centered approach and serves the victim.

Terry, the executive director of the Texas Council on Family Violence, likened it to planting a tree.

“I think there’s a saying: when is the best time to plant a tree to benefit from the shade? Twenty years ago, right? You’re planting those trees today,” Terry said.