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Court tackles domestic violence, one young family at a time

Bexar County's Early Childhood Court works with parents whose children are under 5 years old.
Bexar County's Early Childhood Court works with parents whose children are under 5 years old.
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SAN ANTONIO – The Trouble Shooters are taking a rare look inside a court problem that is helping solve one our city’s biggest problems.

San Antonio has the highest rates of domestic violence in Texas. The latest trend is a bit of a double-edged sword: the rates of kids being removed from homes is going down, but advocates say the cases they do see are harder to manage.

That’s why the Early Childhood Court is taking on domestic violence.

On the court’s graduation day this month, eleven parents had been legally reunited with their 19 children.

"I get to see them all the way through graduation,” says Judi Yahn, the court liaison for Family Violence Prevention Services.

Her office is in the courthouse, just down the hall from Bexar County Children’s Court. She’s who parents meet with right after their kids have been removed from their care.

"What happens next?" reporter Emily Baucum asks.

"Well, they spend a lot of time in our office just talking about it. And we spend most of the time just listening,” Yahn says. "And those that say, 'I'm ready to do whatever I need to do' - well, we'll help them connect with those services."

There are services for victims, for abusers and even for children.

"Every day, I guess, I could hear: 'Well, he only - the perpetrator only abused me. But my children were fine.' No, your children were not fine,” Yahn says.

Drug or alcohol addiction is typically what lands parents in Early Childhood Court. But dig deeper, and the judge who oversees the program says at least 80% of parents have seen or experienced domestic violence.

"Can you see a direct line between this court, and stopping the cycle of violence?" Baucum asks.

"Yes,” Judge Peter Sakai says. "And those are tough issues, especially when they're generational. It takes intense therapy. It takes intense and dedicated counselors and therapists."

Parents have to earn their kids back. That’s what the certificates at graduation represent. The court is a type of restorative justice, where the goal is to put families back together.

"We've learned abusers - sometimes they can be rehabilitated,” Judge Sakai says. “Sometimes, they don't necessarily need to be locked up. But they do have to go through some tough, intensive parenting programs."

And the turnarounds can be remarkable, Yahn says, as she tells us about a mom who just got her kids back.

"She is a teenager, which is not uncommon for Early Childhood Court,” Yahn says. "She was the victim of severe domestic violence. She feels so empowered, and says all of it is because she had this opportunity to get involved in these services."

Judge Sakai says the numbers show specialty courts for parents like Early Childhood Court are helping: 85% of parents who go through these programs don’t come back through the court system.


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