ORLANDO, Fla. — Domestic violence cases are on the rise in Orange County, prompting the return of a county commission that worked on finding solutions to the issue.

  • Demings: Nearly 8,600 domestic violence cases in Orange County in 2018
  • 10 people killed in domestic violence cases so far this year
  • Commission to focus on expanding resources, abusers' access to guns
  • WATCH: Orange County Domestic Violence Commission Meeting

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings reconvened the Domestic Violence Commission on Monday in downtown Orlando. 

"Domestic violence is no longer a private matter, domestic violence is a public health and safety issue that spans gender, age, sexual orientation and religion," Demings said in his opening remarks. "In the United States, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men are victims of domestic violence." 

The group comprised of leaders from law enforcement and courts, to domestic violence support organizations, like Harbor House of Central Florida.

“The more we start talking about domestic violence, we know we’re going to have more people come forward and feel safe reaching out for services, out to different groups for services," said Michelle Sperzel, CEO of Harbor House of Central Florida. "And in the long run, make sure we’re able to help them through the entire system.”

Demings said that, for the first time, victims will be part of the commission. Sperzel said that having a commission of people from varied backgrounds is key in order to improve outcomes for victims and make recommendations to Orange County government.

“We need to have all different types of people who touch that subject matter in order for us to come together and create a difference, notice where there’s gaps and come up with solutions together," she said. "The survivor voice in all of this is going to be the most important voice."

“I am an advocate for change as a survivor," one woman declared into a microphone during Monday's session.

Cases on the Rise

The commission met as domestic violence cases rise.

"In 2018, Orange County had the highest rate of domestic violence in Florida, with nearly 8,600 cases reported to the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement," Demings said. "Over 51 percent of the victims were in a spouse or co-habitant relationship with the offender."

Demings also said that, according to the Orange County jail, domestic violence arrests increased from 2017 to 2018 by 10 percent, from 4,836 in 2017 to 5,338 in 2018.

According to Orange County Sheriff John Mina, there were 10 domestic violence-related homicides in Orange County last year. The sheriff's office has documented 10 cases this year so far. 

"It is clear that we need to take a bolder and broader approach to tackling the issue of domestic violence in our county," Demings said.

Moving the Needle

Originally formed in 2005 under former Chief Judge Belvin Perry and reconvened under then Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, the commission issued a final report in 2013.

The commission made more than 60 recommendations, and helped to pass legislation limiting contact between abusers and victims.

Now, the group hopes to move the needle and better protect domestic violence victims and children, eventually sharing their recommendations with Orange County government.

Sperzel said that there's urgency in their work, as Harbor House recently realized they served more children than women.

The statistics regarding perpetuation of violence are stark. Boys who witness domestic violence are four times more likely to become an abuser later in life, while girls are two times more likely, she said.

The commission said that they want to improve evidence gathering in domestic violence crimes and better equip victims with resources as they free themselves from their abusers.

They also want to focus on abusers' access to guns. Over half of all female victims of intimate homicides in the U.S. are killed by guns. If not used to kill, guns are typically used to threaten victims, Chief Judge Donald A. Myers, Jr. noted.

Hope and Healing

Tekoa Pouerie works to show her daughter what healthy relationships look like, because when she was a child, she had to watch her father physically abuse her mother for years.

“I remember my father taking cigarettes and putting them into my mom’s neck," Pouerie recalled.

Even though she tried to protect her mother, her dad would physically abuse her as well.

“I was 4 or 5 years old, and I was pulling the pants leg of my father, and he reached back out of anger and hit me. I still have a scar on my face to this day," Pouerie explained.

But she found hope and healing by using her experience to help others at the Harbor House. And now, she's a member of the Orange County Domestic Violence commission.

She says early intervention is key to making sure children don’t continue the cycle of abuse, just as she’s working to break the cycle in her family.

The commission will meet next on December 6 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Orange County Administration Building on Rosalind Avenue in downtown Orlando.