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SAFE wants to help make Austin safer by reducing violence early

Wednesday, August 8, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Relationship violence is a significant driver of violence in any city. However, it can be difficult for the police to do anything more than respond to incident calls; they cannot be caseworkers for those who are involved in violent relationships.

In Austin, the SAFE Alliance came to the August 6 meeting of the Public Safety Commission to remind them that law enforcement need not do it all. Through partnerships with other organizations who specialize in case management and intervention, overall violence within the city can be reduced.

SAFE programming is varied but it all aims for early intervention and “addresses some of the social constructs that hold up (cycles) … and change the way people think and behave around violence,” explained Julia Spann, co-chief executive officer.

She suggested two options to the Public Safety Commission. Early violence prevention could be funded in the budget under a “crime prevention” track and the “ensuring safety” track. All the suggested programs currently exist but city funding would allow them to expand.

Crime prevention is a long-term strategy. It includes the Expect Respect program, which offers services in K-12 Austin schools to prevent dating and sexual violence as well as promote safe, healthy relationships. It also includes the Strong Start program which provides evidence-based services to Austin families with children ages 0-5, who are at risk of child abuse and neglect.

According to Spann, the Expect Respect program has been proven to be effective. “What’s important about this particular program is that it’s been evaluated by the CDC … (and) not only did it change the boys’ and girls’ behaviors … but it actually changed their views about violence in general,” she explained.

SAFE also offers immediate safety through the mobile SAFE Advocacy program, which ensures that abuse survivors and their families can remain safe in their homes, or be rapidly relocated into safe housing. In Austin, shelters routinely have a waiting list so without alternative programming, Melinda Cantu, the vice president of Housing, Healing & Support Services at SAFE, explained, there are few options left for vulnerable families.

Both program tracks would cost $353,000 a year. However, Spann noted that in terms of finances, “That’s very scalable … we could double or triple that. We could also scale it down a little bit.”

Still, Cantu said that because the cycle of violence is a continuum passed from generation to generation, an expenditure to prevent its development now would save millions of dollars in the future. “Preventing violence save lives. It saves money,” she said.

Commissioner Ed Scruggs agreed, saying that evidence shows that failure to address issues early “does lead to many problems.”

To underscore her agreement with the proposed programming, Commissioner Daniela Nuñez made a motion that the commission recommend to Council that it provide funding for the programs. However, Commissioner Kim Rossmo cautioned that the commission craft the language in a way that makes it generic and not agency-specific. “Based on my experience … you can’t say we support the funding of this group,” he said. “It’s not fair to other charities who haven’t had the chance to speak to us.”

With generic language in mind, the commission unanimously recommended to City Council that the city add funding for early intervention programs to prevent relationship violence. Commission Chair Rebecca Webber was absent.

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