Oct. 6, 2016 12:43 pm

Here’s how Philadelphia plans to better address domestic violence

Azucena Ugarte, the city's first director of domestic abuse strategies, wants more training and better cross-departmental communication.

Azucena Ugarte with Mayor Jim Kenney.

(Photo courtesy of the City of Philadelphia)

In the brilliant sunshine of Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Jim Kenney stood before a crowd at Board Game Art Park to condemn domestic violence and encourage those who witness it to report it.

“When you hear that stuff, you know it’s going on, you have to speak up,” the mayor said during Lutheran Settlement House’s (LSH) Men Can rally. “You have to call the police. You have to contact the appropriate people who can intervene and deal with this problem.”

But what are those entities doing with your report of domestic violence? Are they equipped to deal with the abusers and ensure the safety of the abused? Are they communicating with each other?

Not always, according to Azucena Ugarte, the city’s first director of domestic abuse strategies. When she begins her work in the Department of Human Services on Oct. 17, Ugarte will be charged with bettering the city’s management of its vast domestic violence problem. 


(Photo by Julie Zeglen)

She’s ready, though. Ugarte is the former director of prevention education and technical assistance at Women Against Abuse, one of four domestic violence service providers in the city which also operates two safe havens and the city’s 24-hour bilingual domestic violence hotline. (The other three are LSH, Congreso and Women in Transition.)

Her job before was to train those working within systems — such as cadets at the Police Academy — to recognize how to screen for domestic violence, provide support for victims and properly refer them to the appropriate services. Women Against Abuse calls it a “Coordinated Community Response.”

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The problem is, though, that the city’s capacity to pay for such training varies by fiscal year.

“That has been happening, but that has not been happening systematically,” Ugarte said. Her job will be “figuring out how we can create a training plan that could be included in the regular training that specific staff members have to receive anyway.”

Another goal will be to nail down some official numbers on the scope of the problem in Philadelphia. This is what’s known now, according to Ugarte:

  • The hotline answered 15,090 calls in fiscal year 2015
  • 79 percent of those callers identified as victims
  • 59 percent identified as first-time callers
  • PPD responded to about 100,000 domestic violence reports last year
  • 14,000 people are turned away annually from the city’s two shelters

Yet the city doesn’t know, for example, how many people receiving services for substance abuse and mental health are also experiencing domestic violence. Based on her own experience working in the system, Ugarte estimates that as much as 95 percent of women in recovery programs have had some kind of experience with it.

And the huge issue of not having enough space in safe havens can’t be solved without considering that many women need more than temporary safety.

“It’s about having subsidized housing or low-income housing, because you can double the beds in the shelter, but if you don’t have a place for survivors to go after they are staying there, it’s just going to be a revolving door,” Ugarte said.

Domestic violence is an intimate, widespread issue that the city can’t hope to solve alone. But it’s taking steps in the right direction.

“I know this is going to be a long process,” she said. “It’s not going to happen from one day to another. There has to be a lot of players involved in this process, but I’m also really excited because the fact that the city created the position tells me that the city’s completely invested in this.”

The Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline number is 1-866-723-3014.


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