Domestic Violence Advocacy
Crisis Center Executive Director Kelli Wright-Nelson and Wharton County Attorney C.A. “Trey” Maffett sat down with The County Gin to shed light on its advocacy and bring awareness to its expanding services.
It’s important to remember that domestic violence was a global pandemic long before the COVID-19 outbreak. (See Crisis Center sees influx of clients due to pandemic)
One in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in her life. LGBTQ+ individuals experience similarly high levels of violence.
In the local community, the Crisis Center shelter served 153 domestic violence clients in Wharton County through 2019. It also provided 51 individuals with assistance in filing a protective order — one of the first steps in the legal system.
‘I feel like they’re on their own.’
Maffett told The County Gin the vast majority of the protective order pertaining to women within the county will go through the Crisis Center.
“They’ll help me put together an affidavit or something I can use, then the case will come over for review and the women will come here,” Maffett said. “There are a lot of things that go unreported (to the police) that will be included with the affidavit. I’ll put (the case) together for them and we’ll walk it over to have what’s called an ex parté hearing with the judge to get a quick order, which prohibits (the abuser) from committing family violence or may even kick him out of the house.
“Once that’s served, the law is now enforceable by jail. He can get arrested if he violates that ex parté order. Within a short period of time, we have a hearing to get a more permanent order that would last up to two years.”
Often, the court is a large barrier for women in their effort to exit an abusive relationship.
“The vast majority of women who are seeking protective orders that I see just don’t have the resources to pursue a divorce, so I have to let them go because I can’t get involved in a private custody issue,” Maffett said. “I feel like they’re on their own.”
This is where the Crisis Center steps in, offering advocates to accompany clients through the process.
“After assisting with the protective orders, the Crisis Center will have someone assigned to that lady that will actually go with them to court, make a copy of the protective order for the lady to have with her and assist her in the courthouse,” Maffett said.
Wright-Nelson explained, “We will take on any role as far as advocacy. So, any sort of case like child support hearing or anything that you would be around that offender, we will accompany that woman. We have clients that come from Houston; we will accompany them back to Houston for hearings just to make sure they have someone who helps them feel comfortable in those circumstances.”
Full-Time Family Law Attorney
The Crisis Center hopes to offer further guidance for victims with the addition of a full-time lawyer.
“One really exciting thing is they’re expanding their services with a new, full-time attorney. The need is overwhelming,” the county attorney said. “The women that I see need private, legal counsel regarding their children, circumstances and getting a divorce. It will help them get out of those relationships. I believe that when people talk and learn you can get an attorney, it will help. They would be able to see a path forward.”
‘Being able to move someone to a shelter, get them an attorney immediately, work with the county attorney’s office to get a protective order and take care of custodial issues can offer this holistic approach to victim services.’
Wright-Nelson agreed, noting, “A lot of the road barriers that we see are, ‘I don’t want to leave because he’s going to have visitation with the kids.’ They wouldn’t be there to block what may happen to their children. Being able to move someone to a shelter, get them an attorney immediately, work with the county attorney’s office to get a protective order and take care of custodial issues can offer this holistic approach to victim services.”
The new attorney, Kate Smith, is a veteran of the practice from Coleyville, Texas, with a tenure of more than 26 years in family law. Her tentative start date was June 22.
“She will be housed in our Wharton office and travel to other offices to meet with clients when needed. Services will be offered in Bay City, Wharton, El Campo and Palacios with appointment,” Wright-Nelson said, explaining that to qualify for free legal services, the client will have to meet with an advocate and complete an assessment to ensure they meet the criteria for services.
“Time is of the essence in these cases,” Maffett told The Gin. “Adding this attorney is going to be really good; there is a big need.”
Children’s Advocacy Center
Over the past decade, the agency has expanded its services, which provide victims with everything from shelter and legal support, to counseling and rape response, and even a Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC).
The Crisis Center is one of the few centers in Texas that offer such array of services for its clients.
‘Our role is to coordinate between law enforcement and CPS to get that child in to do a forensic interview, which is a very child-friendly conversation.’
“We are pretty proud of it,” Wright-Nelson told The County Gin. “We are actually one of five centers in Texas that are an umbrella that includes a CAC.”
In 2019 alone, the Wharton County Crisis Center assisted 355 child advocacy clients and 30 sexual assault clients.
“The CAC, which is a very important, highly technical, lots of training role. Because a lot goes into child forensic interviewing,” Maffett told The Gin. “Before this existed, we would have to take the children to Ft. Bend County or Harris County; which is very problematic.
“Also, it was up to the county attorney to visit directly with these ladies or children. Now, their phone call will be directed to the Crisis Center so the individual can have a conversation with someone who is trained to handle these cases.”
Now, the center can assist law enforcement and CPS with certified and trained forensic interviewers.
“They (forensic interviewers) are bachelor-degree leveled individuals,” Wright-Nelson said. “Texas actually has their own certification program that they go through. So, it’s a 3-tiered program that they go through with CAC Texas.”
According to the county attorney, whenever a Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS) report is filed, it goes to a state-wide intake and the office receives a copy of that report.
“Our role is to coordinate between law enforcement and CPS to get that child in to do a forensic interview, which is a very child-friendly conversation,” Wright-Nelson explained. “It’s recorded and will follow that child through the court process if it were to be prosecuted. This is to prevent the child from having to tell you their story over and over or having to make that child relive the story multiple times over.”
The Crisis Center handles any traumatic incident involving a child.
“Our CAC doesn’t just do forensic interviews,” the executive director said. “If a child comes in for an interview, they are also offered counseling, the parents are offered legal services, emergency assistance for immediate funds.”
She continued, “If a child witnesses a murder, or domestic violence or any traumatic instance, we will be involved, but only at the referral of law enforcement or CPS. So, the whole basis of creation of CAC Texas, which is the base model for what we do here, was just to get these agencies to collaborate, work together and share information that would benefit the child and benefit overcoming the trauma associated with these cases.”
The executive director said many of its referrals come from the Department of Family Protective Services (otherwise as CPS), which is a part of its multidisciplinary team (MDT) — a team comprised of county attorneys, district attorney’s offices, all the different law enforcement agencies in both counties and the Crisis Center therapist.
‘We have all the players there in one room that can help each other and communicate to ensure those cases are moving as reasonably as possible through the system.’
“We have monthly meetings. What normally happens is: we have a list of the kids names that are interviewed, we will go through it; we will hear of any law enforcement updates; we will check with CPS to make sure parents are working their services or if they’re trying to unify the parents; we have the therapist there to offer recommendations,” Wright-Nelson said. “I think before we did a lot of referrals to other people to see if maybe they could offer more things without really perfecting the programs and process. We have really tried to bring the resources in-house to utilize them as much as we can. Anytime you serve a rural area, resources are sparse so bringing them in house really helps.”
The county attorney added, “I just want to stress the importance of (the CAC) providing a conduit or hub. Even at these MDT meetings, you’re getting all these people together involved in these sexual assault cases. These are some of your most important cases, but can be fraught with issues or problems.
“It takes a team to really do the best job. I mean, my goodness, when we have a meeting and we have the list of all of the cases of the people that they have interviewed, not only is the forensic interviewer there but CPS is there and the prosecutors are there. Things slip through the cracks all the time, so when you get all these people together, it makes the process easier. We have all the players there in one room that can help each other and communicate to ensure those cases are moving as reasonably as possible through the system.”
The MDT in Wharton County is in the process of evolving into an executive leadership program in order better involve the heads of each department.
Instead of the assistant DA, we would have (Wharton County District Attorney Dawn (Allison) there, you would have Sheriff (Shannon) Schrubar there, (City of Wharton Police Chief Terry) Lynch, (City of El Campo Police Chief Terry Stanphill) and (Maffett),” Wright-Nelson said. “Just bringing all the tops of the agencies together can help us figure out how we can better serve the agencies.”
Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE)
The Crisis Center also serves sexual assault victims after the addition of a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) last year.
“So, we have historically not had a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) nurse in Wharton County. We actually contracted with a forensic nursing program out of Houston and in our Wharton Crisis Center, we have a full medical examining facility now,” she said, explaining that the addition has been well-received among the community.
“We have received great feedback. I think one of the biggest programs that we get the most feedback from is our sexual assault program only because it’s a very victim-centered approach to sexual assault,” Wright-Nelson said. “Previously, we were going to either Texas Children’s or Sugarland and it took anywhere from 6 to 12 hours. Now this cuts this down to maybe 3 to 4 hours. In our environment, it’s very private. There is no one else in the building, which cuts down the embarrassment of going to a hospital and we’re able to talk one-on-one to see what type of safety program we can put in place for them.
“In a perfect world, I would hope knowing this would help victims come forward, but there is still a stigma surround sexual assault. You know, will someone believe me, how will it be perceived, this is an embarrassment.”
With the establishment of three client-focused agencies, the Crisis Center is working to maximize its outreach and its services.
“We’ve had those three programs for quite some time, but now we are working on perfecting each program and maximizing the different services we can get out of each one of them,” the executive director said, highlighting its community arm. “I came on board here in March of 2018 and we didn’t have a coordinated outreach program. We kind of just had people spread out, going out everywhere to tell people what we did. So, we created a coordinated response team, which is comprised of domestic violence advocates, sexual assault advocates and CAC forensic interviewers. They have strategically been going to schools. They do a Teen Safety Matters program that works with the parents of high school students.”
Due to COVID-19 obstructing the Crisis Center’s outreach in schools, the organization is focusing on other means of outreach.
“We are working on our educational programs. I can say right now, because COVID-19, we’re not going to be allowed back into the schools. Last year, we had almost 19,000 students in our programs. I know that’s what has really peaked one of our services — getting children to feel comfortable with us, getting parents to understand our services,” Wright-Nelson said. “So, we are looking at how to virtually provide the same services we provide now to the schools. We have actually set up a whole media-type of room. We have a green screen and equipment. It’s not ideal because I think face-to-face is a lot more efficient for children.”
Through word-of-mouth and technology, the Crisis Center is dedicated to informing the Wharton County community that help is available.
You can help, too. Educate yourself about the causes, efforts, and solutions to domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse. Become involved in seeking solutions in your community for domestic violence and sexual assault. Support the work of prevention and intervention by volunteering.
For more information or to become a volunteer, visit crisiscnt.com/you-can-help/volunteers/.
If you or a loved one is in need of advice or assistance, please contact The Crisis Center at 1-800-451-9235 or explore their offered programs online at www.crisiscnt.com.
Jessica Hartman contributed to this report.