Updated 10 a.m., Sept. 7.
Last month, veteran City Council staffer Linda Rios was found dead in her Northeast Philadelphia home. The death was almost immediately ruled a murder-suicide at the hands of Rios’ estranged husband. The couple had recently separated, colleagues said.
As news of Rios’ death sent shockwaves through the city, that detail in particular triggered an alarm.
Separation is often a perilous time, according to Philly’s domestic violence experts. “It’s so sad for us,” said Jeannine L. Lisitski, executive director at Women Against Abuse, “because we just wish we could warn every single person that if you’re in an abusive relationship, you’re at the most dangerous time when you’re separating.”
The tragedy of Rios’ death was amplified by the nature of her role in City Hall. As the human resources director, part of her job entailed encouraging coworkers to seek outside help with issues at work and at home. But until recently, the city didn’t have a specific point person tasked with dealing with domestic violence. That has now changed, thanks to an effort involving dozens of Philadelphia agencies, including City Council, to improve the city’s institutional response.
It’s called the Shared Safety initiative, and while its mechanisms are complex, it’s goal is simple: stop domestic abuse before it turns fatal.
Realizing police should be the ‘last resort’
For more than 30 years, Carol E. Tracy has been one of Philadelphia’s patron saints of domestic abuse advocacy. A co-founder of the four-decade-old organization Women Against Abuse, she has been leading the Women’s Law Project since 1990. In 2014, the city named a safe haven for at-risk women in her honor, and today she’s a nationally consulted expert on women’s issues.
But back when Tracy began her work in the 1980s, there were no shelters for at-risk women in Philly — let alone general legal protections.
“There was nothing,” Tracy said. “Women stayed home and got beat, and many of them were victims of homicide, and mostly, women were blamed for their husbands’ bad behavior.”
In a country where one in four women have experienced domestic violence, advocates have long looked to reform the intervention process by expanding the safety net.
For decades, the Philadelphia Police Department was considered the front line for handling domestic violence. Tracy recalls Patricia Fox, a former detective who later became a deputy commissioner, saying that police should be the last resort for intervention, rather than the first responder.
“Historically, this issue was only handled by law enforcement,” WAA director Lisitski said. “The health and human services agencies were not screening systemically for intimate partner violence with all the people they served. We were missing a big window to ask people about this issue — and to intervene.”
To address this gaping bureaucratic oversight, Shared Safety was formed in 2012. Today, the initiative consists of more than 70 members working together in what is called the “collective impact model” for domestic violence intervention.
The initiative is now lead by the newly established Office of Domestic Violence Strategies. Women Against Abuse remains one of the co-backbones of the program, along with city’s Department of Behavioral and Intellectual Disability Services. Dozens of nonprofits and governmental agencies also participate, from Congreso to HIAS Pennsylvania to the city’s Office of Homeless Services.
Together, these agencies share resources and conduct systemwide screenings of potentially vulnerable residents in Philadelphia, which allows other agencies to follow up with supportive services.
Under Shared Safety, sharing resources between agencies is the norm. When a health department official works with a resident, they’re now trained to ask questions to possibly identify domestic abuse, which can then alert advocates to reach out to the individual. And Woman Against Abuse now keeps a staff attorney inside Philly’s Family Court to offer legal aid to residents filing for Protection From Abuse orders, also known as restraining orders.
“One of the really difficult problems…is that there wasn’t really a locus in city government who had the specific job of looking at domestic violence,” Tracy said.
Shortly after taking office in 2016, Mayor Jim Kenney established a new position in his cabinet. Azucena Ugarte now serves as the city’s first director of domestic violence strategies, a job that entails facilitating the many-tiered network behind the city’s domestic violence intervention.
Using data to spark a new wave of reforms
In the wake of Rios’ murder, Homicide Capt. John Ryan shared a statistic that sparked big-picture concerns:
Rios marked the 21st “domestic killing” of 2018 — up 50 percent compared to the same time period last year.
While the discrepancy appears alarming, in context, it’s not necessarily an indication of a spike. Over the last decade in Philly, domestic killings have accounted for between 17 and 36 homicides annually. This year will likely end on the higher end of that range.
“If the number doubles for 2018 compared to 2017, that would get my attention,” said Richard A. Berk, a professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Penn, who reviewed a decade of the city’s domestic homicide data at the request of a reporter.
Spike or not, advocates track the individual deaths rigorously. But gathering data around domestic violence is a key component of the fight — and on that front, there’s still work to be done.
For starters, how do we define a “domestic killing”?
Today, the Philadelphia Police Department does not distinguish between domestic violence and intimate partner violence. It may seem like a small distinction, but it is important one for advocates. Cases involving elder abuse would be classified in the same “domestic killing” category as spousal violence — as in the Rios’ case — which complicates the process for identifying improvements in the abuse intervention process.
“We’ve advocated to get more fine grain data to better unpack the [intimate partner violence] cases, but have not been successful yet,” said Katie Young-Wildes, the director of advancement at Women Against Abuse.
In terms of sexual violence, however, Philadelphia has become something of a national exemplar.
In the late 1990s, a scandalizing Inquirer investigation found that Philadelphia Police Department had regularly “downgraded” rape allegations and mishandled thousands of sexual assault cases.
The publication spurred widespread reform efforts in the department, Tracy recalls. Today, the city’s process for tracking these crimes has garnered widespread recognition: it’s actually called “the Philadelphia model,” and was most recently been adopted in Canada after reporters unearthed similar deficiencies in sexual assault policing.
But on a legislative level, Harrisburg has been a slower, more persistent hurdle to providing protections. It wasn’t until 1984 that the State Supreme court snuffed an exemption that legally allowed a husband to rape his wife. And currently, state legislators have come under fire for halting a bill that would strip firearms from those who have slapped with a protection-from-abuse order.
In the days since the death of Linda Rios and the media attention that followed, Tracy and Lasitski both said the members of Shared Safety began sharing concerns. There are many issues to address on the local level — domestic abuse among Philly’s undocumented population, for example. At the very least, they hope a hearing before Council is in order to discuss the next wave of reforms.
“It’s sad that all change occurs because of some catalyst,” Lisitski said. “I’m saddened that it has to be that way, but because of these tragic events, I think there will be deeper work around the issue.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated to clarify that the newly established Office of Domestic Violence Strategies is now the primary facilitator of the Shared Safety initiative.