On a sunny Wednesday in October as a gentle breeze filled the streets of Alpine nearly two dozen marchers carrying banners, flanked by nearly as many police cars with lights flashing, marched in solidarity with the victims of domestic violence. Survivors, families, advocates and community member joined with the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend for the first annual Zuzu Verk Memorial walk and vigil honoring her and countless other victims of Domestic Violence. Verk, 21, was murdered by her boyfriend Robert Fabian in 2016.
Program director Gina Wilcox addressed the crowd that had doubled in size by the time they reached the courthouse. “In 2020, 228 Texans were killed by their intimate partner. This is the highest number recorded in the last decade. Victims ranged in age from 14 years old to 90 years old. That was 183 women killed by their male intimate partner, 40 men killed by their female intimate partner, one woman and four men killed by their same sex partner.” At candles were lit, she stated, “It can happen to anyone. Everyone knows someone.”
Before Gina started working at the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend nearly ten years ago, she didn’t think family violence happened to other people. Other people didn’t talk about it. Her family didn’t discuss it. The violence she experienced was a personal thing, a private thing. She believed she was alone in her struggle. Her awareness shifted quickly once she started working at the Family Crisis Center and witnessing how pervasive and insidious domestic violence is. “It’s more than just physical violence,” she says. “It’s not about losing control. It’s not about anger management. Domestic violence is a systematic pattern of behavior, used to maintain power and control over another person.”
To help clients identify it, Family Crisis Advocates use a tool called the Power & Control Wheel, a circular graphic that identifies eight patterns of actions an individual may use to intentionally control or dominate their intimate partner. “Its main purpose is to spotlight that domestic violence is not about aggression or anger,” adds Jennie Wettle, an advocate in Alpine. “It’s all about controlling that partner. A person who’s a domestic violence abuser doesn’t generally go up on random people in the grocery store. They wait until they go home, because it’s about controlling someone, and keeping the power.”
On the other side of town from the center is Déjà Vu Thrift Store, a project of the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend. 100% of profits go directly to funding the center’s services, allowing the center to adapt to the swiftly changing needs of any family’s crisis, from Pecos to Presidio, Fort Davis to Terlingua. Stacy Harrison, like many others who work at the crisis center, has taken her own journey through domestic violence. She now knows it can happen to anyone. She knows how, without help like shelter, food and clothing, a family can spiral, fast, into unfathomable chaos and despair. She’s experienced the victim shaming and the indifference of a flawed justice system. And she knows the difference it can make when someone reaches out and gives shelter and support.
“If it weren’t for the Crisis Center, I’m not sure where I’d be today. They gave me housing, then work, and even now, as staff we get counseling. I have my life back. When I come here, it’s not work. Each day I know I’m giving a family a chance.”
Stacy’s words echo throughout the organization’s three centers in Presidio, Terlingua and Alpine. Letty Carrillo, the new executive director, has seen domestic violence both as a victim and law enforcement official during her 18 years in the Alpine Police Department. With a disarming welcomeness and passionate certainty, she addresses the concerns many had when she first came on board: “I think there was a bit of surprise when I got the position because, you know, what can a cop bring to a shelter that serves victims of domestic violence, sexual assault? As an officer I’ve seen the situation from a different perspective, I’ve seen it as it happens, as it unfolds. But as an officer, you can only do so much immediately, you’re not there for the long haul. At the Crisis Center, we’re able to get these men and women back on their feet, help them get out of that situation and move on with their life.”
Mike Drinkard concurs. For nearly 18 years now, Mike has been the Crisis Center’s advocate in Terlingua. He talks candidly about the often-unreported incidents by men. “Men don’t want to admit that they are being abused. They might go out and fight every night at the bar, but this little woman got him terrorized. She got all the control, she’s got a big psychological size, a lot of things are about psychological size.”
“It’s not just domestic violence we address though,” Drinkard explains. “In 2004 I saw the deputies on the side of the road with a guy down on the ground with handcuffs on. I thought this was weird, because this is supposed to be a calmer community. A couple of days later, I saw the same thing again, another person being handcuffed. Tensions were growing. I thought, people need to stop this violence. Something needs to be done. We need to find a way to communicate and get along with each other.”
A community member interjects, “People are finding themselves desperate at the edge of our country. And we don’t know where to turn other than to Michael to help us resolve issues that seem insurmountable.”
Many in Terlingua live off the grid without running water or electricity. There’s little work and a higher homeless population because the rentals they did have are becoming AirBnbs for tourists, making housing increasingly scarce and expensive. In his gentle way Michael explains, “When they do surveys asking people from different organizations like law enforcement and legal aid to list needs like fresh water, gasoline, money, jobs, stuff like that, on the top of everybody’s list is access to good mental healthcare. A lot of people could benefit from substance abuse rehab programs, but that doesn’t happen here. You got to go as far away as Midland or El Paso. Often those places are full anyway, so that doesn’t happen. I’m here to be an advocate, to listen. My job is not to judge. I can’t tell people what to do, but I can offer resources, support groups and introductions to friends.”
Presidio, being a border town, has experienced its own set of challenges since the pandemic. Many who were once served can no longer cross from Ojinaga, Mexico. Living within the community, Krisna Saenz, Presidio’s community educator and client advocate, feels the strain on families who with the travel ban can no longer cross from Mexico to the States and ask for help. “We helped everyone before the pandemic. The only thing we can do now is take them food boxes. With travel restrictions we cannot provide legal help for them. Because they’re over there, in Ojinaga. Here In Presidio many stay quiet because they don’t know about a lot of resources. And they don’t know where to go. They’re scared to call to the police. We want them to know they don’t have to go back to the house with the fighting or with the violence. We can offer them shelter. If they are here in Presidio, we can provide them with legal services. We can help them with rent as they look for a job. We can offer them a community of support, that can make a big difference. Our women’s support group has 30 women aged 18 to 80. They bring potluck and talk. It can be fun, silly, serious, or whatever. It helps people know they are not alone and that they have support.”
In Alpine, where the population is near double the other towns, there’s less ability to have one-to-one connections. Letty says, “The biggest challenge is getting the word out, so people know we are here to help them, whether it’s domestic violence, sexual assault, or violent crime. We depend on vital partnerships with schools, volunteers, law enforcement and other loyal supporters to educate everyone in our community that we are here, we can help with food, shelter, support groups, hotline support and rent as they get a new footing in their life.”
In these remote regions, Letty and her crew are determined to not let anyone fall through the cracks. “Each region is so different with different needs. We hire from within the community to make sure the needs are being met by people who understand and don’t judge.” One advocate confides, “It’s hard sometimes when they tell their story. I want to cry but I can’t. I need to stay strong for them. I will cry later.”
Regardess of the type of violence victims have suffered, staff, volunteers and community partners work toward one common goal: that no one has to suffer through abuse. There is tangible, long-term help for anyone to get through the crisis and back on their feet again, maybe for the first time.
By Carolyn Campbell