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Luncheon highlights need for domestic violence awareness amid #MeToo movement

As thousands of people continue to share their experiences with sexual assault and harassment on social media platforms, local advocates and criminal prosecutors are highlighting the need for education when it comes to domestic violence cases in Denton County.  

The "#MeToo" campaign went viral after movie producer Harvey Weinstein was recently accused of sexually harassing young actresses and others for decades. Public figures and other social media users have attached the hashtag to their personal testimonies about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault, showing the magnitude and complexity of  the issue. Some Texas lawmakers, including state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, have publicly voiced their support for the movement. 

In recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Denton County District Attorney's Office hosted a luncheon Friday with the Denton Police Department and Denton County Friends of the Family, a local domestic violence advocacy group , on Friday at the Denton Public Safety Training Center. 

About 100 attendees listened to criminal prosecutors, Denton police investigators and victim advocates talk about ways to identify a victim of domestic violence and how to help. The cases are historically difficult to prosecute because of their complexities, but Assistant District Attorney Michael Graves said social media campaigns like #MeToo can help bolster a criminal case. 

"As unfortunate as it is, it makes it easier to talk about," Graves said. "A  lot of times when you're talking to folks, especially if you're trying to pick a jury, they don't have these experiences and they don't know about them. But if they're seeing it now in the news and everything like that, people become more comfortable talking about domestic violence and sexual assaults and things of that nature." 

Domestic violence cases can include murder, manslaughter, assault, unlawful restraint, kidnapping, harassment and an array of other criminal charges. 

According to statistics from the Texas Council on Family Violence, 158 women were killed by an intimate male partner in the state in 2015. The data shows that number has been increasing since 2011. 

Donna Bloom, director of legal services for Friends of the Family, outlined the extent of the problem in Denton County during her presentation. The agency received 3,600 crisis hotline calls and visited about 220 victims of sexual assault victims in hospitals in 2016, according to the local data in the presentation. 

Friends of the Family also has a shelter for victims of domestic abuse, and it took in 330 residents in 2016, Bloom said.  

As another indicator of the local issue, Bloom recently has been working with Graves and Denton police Sgt. Matt Cain to adopt a "a high-risk team model" at the Denton Police Department.  That means the department will prioritize local victims of domestic violence who are the most likely to face a lethal attack from their abuser.

The model comes from nationally recognized domestic violence homicide prevention program created in 2004 by the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Local law enforcement ultimately wants to prevent a situation from escalating to a homicide. 

"Domestic-violence homicides are predictable and preventable," Bloom said. 

During the presentation, the speakers listed some common identifiers in victims of domestic abuse: wearing clothes designed to hide bruises, frequently missing work or social events, and constantly saying injuries resulted from "accidents." 

Instead of hiding in fear of judgment, victims have a more comfortable platform through the #MeToo movement —  a platform that acknowledges those in isolation, Bloom said. 

"Acknowledgement is critical to helping the next victim understand that they don't have to suffer in silence," she said. 

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882. 

In the Know 

Anyone who has been a victim of domestic violence or knows of someone who has can call the Denton County Friends of the Family hotline at 940-382-7273 or 1-800-572-4031.  The outreach office is located in Corinth at 4845 S. Interstate 35E, Suite 200. Its shelter is at a confidential location.