Tacoma, Pierce County review of domestic violence services is worthy effort - if more victims get help

Jessica Ortega was shot to death by her estranged boyfriend in 2016. Pierce County reached a legal settlement with her family this month.
Jessica Ortega was shot to death by her estranged boyfriend in 2016. Pierce County reached a legal settlement with her family this month. Courtesy photo

Combating domestic violence begins with conversations, frank ones among all the different players whose life’s work it is to protect victims.

So say Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier and County Councilman Rick Talbert. They met with the TNT Editorial Board this week to announce that the city and county have launched a six-month task force to gather information from leaders on the local DV front.

Stronger coordination of services is the goal of the review. Key seats at the table will be filled by the YWCA and the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center. That’s appropriate because they’re the two biggest service providers in the area.

The timing for straight talk about prevention, intervention and protection couldn’t be better.

Last week the county said it had reached a settlement with the family of Jessica Ortega, a 27-year-old mother of two who was killed by her estranged boyfriend in 2016. County Council members approved a $7.8 million settlement that ended the wrongful-death lawsuit.

By all accounts, Ortega did everything she could to protect herself from her abuser, including contacting the Sheriff’s Department four days before her death. Still, the system failed her.

Officials insist the Ortega tragedy wasn’t the impetus for the task force. But Dammeier cited her name while cataloguing the devastation that domestic violence has wrought on local communities.

He mentioned other names, too, including Braden and Charlie Powell. The young brothers were killed in a 2012 murder-suicide by their father, Josh, who is presumed to have killed his missing wife, Susan Cox Powell, two years earlier. Other names that were noted — Kent Mundell and Jake Gutierrez — were law enforcement officers slain while responding to DV calls in the last decade.

“The most horrific things that have happened in our community have involved domestic violence,” Dammeier said. “There’s no question we need stronger family-violence prevention.”

The South Sound has several nonprofits on the front lines of this war, but the Y and the Judson Center carry the heaviest load, with more than 7,000 clients a year between the two. They duplicate some services such as crisis hotlines, legal expertise and family therapy.

Common sense says two like-minded organizations within blocks of each other could find ways to cooperate more. But Woodards aims to make one point clear: “This isn’t about looking for ways to save money; this is about increasing services. It’s about efficiency.”

The task force will consist of representatives from the city, county and local service providers; law enforcement will join as needed.

Miriam Barnett, CEO of the YWCA, told us over the phone she welcomes the idea of a collaboration, though she says it’s too early to say what it would look like.

Under her leadership, the Y has secured $18 million of $22 million needed to build a seven-story apartment building in Tacoma’s St. Helens neighborhood. It will provide permanent, affordable housing to 54 victims and their families. Space for administrative and support services will increase by 4,000 square feet.

Barnett says she won’t rule out the possibility that the Y and the Judson Center, which leases its building, could consolidate services and even co-locate. But with big-ticket projects already in motion, it will take open-minded dialogue and a spirit of compromise to avoid turf wars.

For now, Dammeier encouraged us to see the task force as part of Talbert’s legacy as he ends two terms on the County Council. Talbert has been a consistent advocate for DV victims and is chair of the Judson Center board. Talbert says local government would be derelict not to try coordinating efforts between the county’s two main providers if it means getting help to more people.

On behalf of Jessica Ortega and other family violence victims who’ve paid dearly, we agree.