For four years, Jen tried to leave the man she now refers to simply as “my aggressor.”
In May 2019, she brought her safety action plan to fruition, driving a rickety van out of Arizona with her four children in tow until finally, they crossed the Texas state line. Jen pulled over. “I got out and I literally kissed the ground,” she said. They’d made it back to El Paso, her hometown. “We’re going to be safe,” she told her kids.
In some ways, it was the end of a turbulent chapter in Jen’s life, marked by what she describes as years of extreme physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Her legal battle, however, was just beginning — one that has caused its own kind of trauma, she says. Three years since her escape to El Paso, safety — much less justice — still feels like a far-off dream.
When Jen moved back home, El Paso was known for its tough stance on family violence offenses. The reputation stemmed largely from policies pushed by then-District Attorney Jaime Esparza, who over the course of his 28-year tenure built a legacy centered on tackling domestic violence.
Esparza’s office filed a misdemeanor case against Jen’s ex-partner in January 2020 for allegedly violating the protective order issued against him earlier that fall. El Paso Matters is not publishing Jen’s real name due to the risk of violence from her former partner. In July 2020, the District Attorney’s Office secured a felony indictment against him for violating that protective order multiple times.
That same month, criminal defense and family law attorney Yvonne Rosales made history. When Esparza didn’t seek re-election, Rosales ran against three Democratic primary challengers on a platform highly critical of the departing DA. Throughout her campaign, she lambasted Esparza’s approach to family violence and promised a “solution-oriented approach” over “the current punishment-centered orientation.” She won the July run-off election to become El Paso’s first female district attorney.
In the nearly 18 months since she took office, Rosales has adopted a dramatically different approach to domestic violence cases, attorneys and advocates say. El Paso Matters spoke to a dozen current or former employees of both administrations, as well as some defense lawyers, for this article. Many were critical of Rosales’ approach to domestic violence, but did not want to be quoted by name, citing fear of retaliation against them or clients they were defending.
Rosales’ office no longer has a specialized domestic violence unit. The new DA also ended many tenets of a domestic violence program called the 24-Hour Domestic Violence Contact Initiative, which aimed to collect evidence from victims and direct them to community support within 24 hours of a family violence incident.
In its first year, the new administration filed 60% fewer felony and misdemeanor assault cases against alleged abusers, despite an overall rise in family violence arrests within the city of El Paso. According to defense attorneys, Rosales’ office is far more likely to decline to move forward on domestic violence cases when victims do not wish to press charges against their alleged assailant — a stark departure from the previous DA.
Under Rosales, more people have been released from jail due to a section of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure that says people cannot be jailed past a certain period if prosecutors are not ready to take their cases to trial. Some of those released held multiple family violence charges, with records that signaled a pattern of escalating violence toward the same victim.
Despite rise in arrests, steep decline in family violence prosecutions
Since Jen returned to El Paso, she has contacted the police dozens of times to report continued threats from her ex-partner, both by phone and in person. Because of those threats, she and her children have moved homes eight times in the last three years, at one point spending months in a domestic violence shelter.
In 2021, El Pasoans made nearly 200,000 calls to police. Domestic violence incidents accounted for more than 26,000 of those calls. According to El Paso Police Department data, officers made more than 2,000 family violence arrests — the highest since 2019.
But even as arrests in El Paso climbed to a three-year high, Rosales’ office in 2021 filed far fewer family violence charges than the office did under Esparza.
According to El Paso district and county clerk records, Rosales’ office filed 374 misdemeanor charges for assault family violence causing bodily injury and secured 311 grand jury indictments for family violence felonies in 2021 — a 60% drop from 2020, Esparza’s last year in office.
In a statement, Rosales office said the decrease was warranted.
“The current administration does not rubber stamp cases that are presented, nor does this administration set goals for a certain number of cases to be filed or indicted. The current administration’s focus is JUSTICE,” the statement read.
El Paso Matters first requested an interview with Rosales to discuss her approach to domestic violence cases in September 2021. Rosales and her office ignored this request and a follow-up request made in October.
When El Paso Matters again asked to interview Rosales this month, the office requested written questions in advance of an interview. Rosales’ staff canceled just before the interview’s start, citing an emergency. Paul Ferris, project administrator for the DA’s office, later provided written statements to be attributed to “the administration,” and not Rosales directly.
Overall case filings on decline
Family violence misdemeanor filings, which are among the most common cases reported to the El Paso DA, also saw steeper declines than other common cases: Between 2020 and 2021 DA filings for DWI misdemeanors dropped by 44% compared to the 52% drop in family violence misdemeanors.
The drop in filings for family violence cases comes as part of a steep reduction in all types of criminal cases processed by the 34th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which handles adult felony and misdemeanor cases committed in El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson counties.
According to the 2022 El Paso County Operating Budget, Rosales’ office disposed of 2,098 cases in 2021, falling far short of its goal to resolve 26,750 cases that fiscal year. Esparza’s office had the same goal the previous year but came much closer to meeting it — disposing of 24,503 cases.
In its statement, Rosales’ office largely blamed Esparza for case processing challenges.
“The current administration inherited an extraordinary load of pending cases,” the statement read. “Many work hours have been spent on cases pending prior to 2018, including attempting to contact witnesses, victims, and verifying whether these cases are still viable for prosecution.”
Her office declined to provide the number of pending cases it inherited from Esparza’s administration. Esparza declined to be interviewed for this article.
The DA’s office also cited the pandemic as a reason it had not met targets in a September 2021 progress report for a $145,932 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) grant that had been submitted under Esparza in 2020.
“Covid has virtually frozen our ability to close out cases,” the administration wrote in the progress report.
Virtually all of its output measures fell short of the VAWA grant targets. For example, the office trained seven criminal justice professionals on how to gather and collect evidence in family violence cases between January and August 2021. The stated goal in the grant application was to train 536 people, with the office saying that “staff were unable to reach out to agencies for training purposes” due to the pandemic.
“That’s ridiculous, to blame it on COVID,” said former El Paso County Jail Magistrate Judge Penny Hamilton, a fierce critic of Rosales’ administration.
“You know what? The crime didn’t stop. And your responsibility as a prosecutor didn’t stop,” Hamilton said. “And the things that you swore to do when you took an oath to be the district attorney for El Paso County, and to prosecute crimes for our society and our community, and to get justice for victims — that didn’t stop because of COVID or any other thing.”
Because of the pandemic, there are currently no financial repercussions for missing grant targets, according to the County.
New domestic violence unit model
The DA’s office no longer has a specialized domestic violence unit, according to organizational charts obtained through a public records request and a list of specialized units provided by Rosales’ office. However, the unit “has not been dismantled,” the administration said in its statement. “It has been restructured.”
In a 2020 grant submitted months before Rosales took office, Patricia Baca, then head of the office’s domestic violence unit and now judge of El Paso’s 346th Judicial District Court, noted that the domestic violence unit had three full-time attorneys and six staffers devoted to family violence crimes.
Now, the new administration says that “all prosecutors are ‘the domestic violence unit.’” The statement described the previous domestic violence unit as “simply a set of 3 attorneys who screened the cases.”
Critics of Rosales’ administration acknowledge that newly elected officials are entitled to reset priorities, choose their staff and restructure the agency they lead. But some question why the office did not keep the specialized domestic violence unit that was a hallmark of Esparza’s administration.
Before she became a jail magistrate judge in 2015, Hamilton was the head of the rape and child abuse unit at the El Paso district attorney’s office.
“I think it’s up to each individual district attorney how they decide they want to run their office,” Hamilton said of Rosales’ move to dismantle the domestic violence and other specialized crime units within the office.
But, she added, “as a prosecutor for over 20 years, and working in a specialized unit as I did for all those years, I think they’re vital. There are things about prosecuting family violence cases and child abuse cases that require a lot of specialization.”
Without those units, Hamilton said, “I think you lose something. You lose a lot.”
Other district attorney offices in large urban counties in Texas, including those for Travis, Tarrant, Harris and Dallas counties, have domestic or family violence divisions.
Many of the changes relating to domestic violence have taken place amid broader shifts within the DA’s office, which according to exit interviews first reported by Channel 9-KTSM, has struggled with staff morale and organizational turmoil — especially following Rosales’ controversial decision to remove roughly a quarter of the agency’s staff before she took office in January 2021.
Nearly 18 months later, some vacancies have yet to be filled. Staff turnover also persists, even among Rosales’ own hires.
Rosales started as DA with a new director and assistant director of the victim assistance program. By August, both had left. Program director Angelica Castillo noted in her exit interview that she did not have a new job lined up.
“It should say a lot about morale that I felt I needed to leave even with no job to go to,” Castillo wrote. “Most people are unhappy and are looking for work elsewhere.”
The mass departures at the start of Rosales’ term came at a cost, effectively erasing decades of institutional knowledge and specialized legal experience, and placing an increased workload on the staff that remained, several employees said in their exit interviews.
“It is impossible to have effective prosecutors being short staff(ed) with the amount of attorneys we have,” Teresa Garcia, a senior trial attorney, said during her exit interview with the county six months after she joined the office. “It was no longer feasible to keep working. This has not been a good experience.”
Hamilton said, “I’m telling you, she doesn’t have enough staff, she doesn’t have enough prosecutors to try the damn cases — much less do specialty units.”
The 24-Hour Domestic Violence Contact Initiative
Under the previous administration, within 24 hours after a domestic violence arrest, a DA investigator and a victim advocate would arrive at a victim’s home. The visits were met with mixed emotions, according to a 2011 evaluation of the 24-Hour Domestic Violence Contact Initiative by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.
Some victims were surprised when the two-person team showed up at their doorstep; others were afraid of the unknown law enforcement officers, or embarrassed. But by the end of the visit, most were glad they had come.
“Seeing the interest that the District Attorney’s Office has in my situation,” one person told UT researchers, “well, that comforts me very much.”
Created in 2008, the initiative was the brainchild of Esparza and Gloria Aguilera Terry, then director of the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence, or CASFV. Aguilera Terry left El Paso soon after its formation to lead the Austin-based Texas Council on Family Violence.
“What they did after I left was just phenomenal,” Aguilera Terry said, calling the 24-Hour Domestic Violence Contact Initiative a “strong, victim-centered strategy.”
In a 2013 press release, the Texas District & County Attorneys Association announced that Esparza had won a national award for the initiative, describing it as “an innovative, first-in-the-nation program … meant to move family violence crimes more quickly and efficiently through the criminal justice system and to hold family violence offenders accountable for their acts of criminal violence.”
Under Esparza, the 24-hour contact team would give victims information about domestic violence resources in the community, telling them where they might turn for counseling, medical attention for their injuries or shelter if needed. This provided “significant emotional support to family violence victims,” according to the UT study.
That support isn’t just important in the short term, advocates and researchers say. Studies have found that interactions with law enforcement, including prosecutors, can impact someone’s ability to heal from a traumatic event — for the better, or for the worse.
Conducted daily, the team’s home visits also allowed prosecutors to begin building a case right after the incident — a time when physical evidence like bruises might still be visible to photograph or a victim’s memory still fresh for a filmed statement. The team then brought what they’d gathered back to the DA’s office, where each week Esparza met with prosecutors to screen family violence cases and decide whether to prosecute.
For both the home visits and the weekly screening meetings, speed was crucial — an attempt to address a major roadblock in prosecuting domestic violence cases. According to the UT study, time delays can be “the most significant degrading factor in family violence prosecutions.”
On this front, Jen can relate.
For the last three years, her healing has come in fits and starts. There have been victories, like the time she bit into a mini Snickers bar, breaking one of the many rules her aggressor once enforced. Even that word — aggressor — is in its own way a victory: Jen learned to use it from counselors at the CASFV, who suggested it as a way to mentally separate from her ex-partner.
There have also been defeats, some of them at the hands of a confusing tangle of law enforcement agencies she says have done little to protect her and her children. “What they don’t tell you is that legal help (for) domestic violence is almost nonexistent,” she said.
Multiple sources have said that under Rosales, the 24-Hour Domestic Violence Contact Initiative no longer exists — at least, not as it once did.
The DA’s office provided no reference to the program’s continued existence in response to a public information request asking for the names and titles of employees involved with the program or internal documents or communications that mentioned it.
In its statement to El Paso Matters, Rosales’ administration denied that it had discontinued the program but acknowledged that many of its defining features, like the home visits by DA investigators and victim advocates, are no longer in place.
Esparza suspended in-person visits during the pandemic, the DA’s statement said, and Rosales has continued the policy: “The health and safety of employees is a huge concern for this administration, and civilians (advocates and DA investigators) should not be sent to an active crime scene due to the uncertainty of the volatile situation. Law enforcement officers can video-record victims for statements, as well as record a defendant’s statement which can be used in prosecution.”
Rosales’ office would not say if it still conducts victim outreach within 24 hours of a family violence arrest.
The 24-hour contact initiative also aimed to screen and file cases swiftly. Records from the El Paso County Clerk’s Office show that screening times for misdemeanor family violence assaults causing bodily injury have increased 10-fold under Rosales. A process that once took roughly a week rose to more than three months in 2021.
With its rapid evidence collection and screening process, the 24-hour contact initiative was also designed to help prosecutors pursue cases effectively even without a victim’s participation, or in some instances, when a victim did not want to prosecute them at all — what some call “victimless” or “evidence-based” prosecution.
Evidence-based prosecution can be a way for attorneys to lighten the burden for victims who may want to see their abuser punished, but are terrified of testifying against them. This is the most common fear that Monica Barrera, executive director of El Paso’s La Posada domestic violence shelter, hears from residents who are involved in a court case.
Some also argue that family violence is a public safety threat, leaving the state responsible for prosecuting an incident regardless of the victim’s wishes. In a 2021 report, the Texas Council on Family Violence noted that 31 of the 228 people killed in the state during domestic violence disputes in 2020 were not the direct target of violence. They were friends, bystanders, other family members and police officers.
Sandra Nevarez Garcia, CASFV’s director, has testified as an expert witness in these types of cases. Even though victim testimony is not legally necessary to prove a domestic violence crime, jurors often expect it and can be reluctant to convict without it, she said. Nevarez Garcia would take the stand to explain to jurors why they might not be getting that testimony.
With domestic violence victims, “it’s typical that they retract or that they’re not available,” she said. “You’re going to trial months, sometimes even a year or years later. Maybe that relationship has changed; maybe they’ve gotten back together.”
After a violent incident, couples can enter a “honeymoon stage” of the abuse cycle — “the apologies, the ‘it won’t happen again,’ type of circumstance,” she said. “That’s the challenging part with domestic violence and sexual assault cases.”
Some may return to relationships because they’re financially or socially dependent on their abuser, or afraid they’ll lose their children. Others might feel the incident itself was an accident, or want to see a family member get rehabilitative help rather than criminal punishment.
“But we’re not prosecuting what’s happened now, and whether the relationship is or isn’t better,” Nevarez Garcia said. “What you’re prosecuting is the incident that happened when it happened. Like, was there a crime committed?”
In the late 1990s, Hamilton was among the first attorneys in Esparza’s office to handle a case without a victim’s participation. These cases could be incredibly challenging to prosecute, Hamilton said, but “sometimes even if the victim says, ‘oh I don’t want to go forward,’ the better thing to do is to go forward because they can’t protect themselves.”
“How do you break the cycle?” Hamilton added. “From the little boys growing up thinking that it’s okay to beat their women and the little girls growing up thinking, ‘well, I just have to put up with it and not say anything, the way that mama did.’ You have to look at it globally. You cannot look at it in a tiny little bubble.”
Over the years, Esparza’s office became known for pursuing such cases. The practice drew a number of critics — among them, Rosales.
‘These cases are not just one-sided’
Throughout her campaign for DA, Rosales argued that Esparza was motivated by federal grant money available for family violence convictions. In a 2020 interview with the El Paso Times, she advocated for cooperating “with victims who feel that it was a one-time incident, it was a push, it was a shove.”
“Obviously, we never condone anybody laying our hands on anybody else,” Rosales continued. “However, people are human, they make mistakes. And if it’s never happened in the past and the victim is willing to dismiss the case, then we should respect those wishes.”
In its May statement to El Paso Matters, her office wrote, “By addressing the root of the problem, such as providing either alcohol and drug counseling or parenting classes to a defendant, a family can be saved as well as providing coping skills that will hopefully prevent future violence. The goal of only seeking convictions can often have a negative impact not just on the family, but also to the community as a whole.”
Justin Underwood began his legal career as an assistant district attorney under Esparza. In 2004, after three years of prosecuting felony cases — many of them involving domestic violence — he left to start his own firm as a defense attorney. After making that switch, Underwood said he came to realize that with domestic violence, “these cases are not just one-sided a lot of the time. Family relationships are complicated.”
“As a defense lawyer, you’re concerned with collateral issues,” he said.
In a domestic violence case, those collateral issues might be: What happens to a client’s kids if she’s the sole breadwinner for the family and loses her job because of the charge against her — before she’s even tried? What happens if a client convicted of a family violence misdemeanor isn’t a U.S. citizen?
“Domestic violence convictions will get you removed from the United States very quickly,” Underwood noted. “The stakes go way up when you’ve got collateral damage that’s going to affect your client — like they’re going to lose their job or get deported.”
With domestic violence cases, Esparza’s office was “a 100% prosecution machine,” he said. “They went forward on every single domestic violence case.”
Rosales’ approach has been more flexible, he said.
“In cases where there’s a minor injury, or if it’s a brother and a brother fighting, or two sisters fighting, and they don’t want to prosecute — those cases need to be resolved with anger management or disorderly conduct. Under the old regime, those cases were treated the same as a husband who’s beaten his wife or a spouse that’s abusive to a child,” Underwood said. “To me, those cases are not the same. They should not get the same attention.”
Defense attorney Sergio Saldivar said he appreciates Rosales’ willingness to make decisions on a “case-by-case basis” compared to Esparza’s more top-down approach.
The difference between the district attorneys’ two approaches is especially apparent when victims don’t want to press charges, Underwood said. He gave an example: On Friday, a man gets arrested on family violence charges for pushing his wife and by Sunday, they’re back together.
“In that situation, we’d get the wife to sign an affidavit saying she doesn’t want to prosecute,” he said. “ In the past, the old regime would never decline that case. They would file it 100 times out of 100 times. Now I would say eight times out of 10, they’re not filing it at all.”
Saldivar said this approach does a better job of listening to victims. “Yvonne works for the citizens of El Paso,” he said. “So she’s going to be the voice of the victims — but the victims that want to go forward.”
Rosales’ office declined to describe any vetting measures it takes to ensure that victims have not been intimidated into submitting these affidavits by the defendants. “Disclosing our safety protocols to protect a victim from the pressures a defendant puts on a victim to sign an affidavit of non-prosecution would not be in the best interest of the victims,” the office wrote.
Some jailed defendants wait months for DA decision on their case
Judge Hamilton grew more and more alarmed as she read the criminal history of the man she was about to release in January. Then the head jail magistrate judge for El Paso County, Hamilton was tasked with deciding who could be released from jail, and what the terms of their release would be. “It’s a hard decision every single day … trying to decide who should stay in jail, who should not stay in jail,” she said.
This case, to Hamilton, felt pretty clear-cut. According to the man’s criminal history report, he had previously been charged with cruelty to animals, resisting arrest and two different cases of assault family violence, both “with the same victim,” Hamilton recalled. His record showed that he’d violated the terms of his release before.
“Each time that he would get out of jail, he would go back to the same alleged victim, and each time, the assaults became more and more violent,” Hamilton said. “It’s exactly that type of offender who just scares the hell out of me.”
Though the man had been arrested on a misdemeanor family assault charge, the DA’s office had not yet decided whether to move forward with his case, she said: It hadn’t yet filed his case with the county clerk.
A section of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure prohibits jailing defendants past a certain time limit — usually between 30 to 90 days for more serious misdemeanors or felonies — if the state isn’t ready for trial. That section, Article 17.151, is meant to protect the rights of people who are accused of crimes, especially those who can’t afford to pay for their release on bond.
“You’re innocent until proven guilty,” Hamilton said. “There have to be some sort of checks and balances when it comes to the power of the district attorney to prosecute people. You can’t just take forever. People’s lives are so significantly impacted by the accusation of a crime.”
The DA had taken too long to decide whether to prosecute this man. And so on Jan. 24, Hamilton ordered him to be released.
“It absolutely tore me up,” she said.
This isn’t the only 17.151 release that haunts Hamilton, who retired from her judicial position in March and is now a temporary employee of the El Paso Council of Judges.
Records kept by magistrate judges at the El Paso County Jail show that 14 people were released on average per year between 2018 and 2020 because Esparza’s office was not ready for trial.
In 2021, Rosales’ first year in office, that number jumped to 185.
“I’m afraid something really bad is going to happen, because somebody is going to get out and somebody’s going to die,” Hamilton said. “And it’s going to be because the District Attorney’s Office didn’t do their job.”
These 2021 releases were often associated with more serious offenses — among them, terroristic threats, assaulting police officers and smuggling large amounts of drugs. The number of people released who had been charged with family violence offenses also spiked.
In the three years before Rosales took office, just one person facing an assault family violence charge was released under 17.151. From the time that Rosales took office in January 2021 to mid-March 2022, more than 50 people with family violence charges have been released under this provision.
When someone is released under 17.151, that doesn’t mean the case has been dropped; the DA could still decide to prosecute. But for Hamilton, this heightens the risk of a case “falling by the wayside” until the statute of limitations runs out and the case can no longer be prosecuted. To her, the releases speak to a DA’s office shirking its responsibility to both victims and defendants.
“How can you say that justice is going on when you have all of these people who have to be released because you’re not doing your job and you’re not filing the cases?” Hamilton said.
When asked about this rise, the DA’s office wrote that “bond decisions are exclusively within the parameters of the Magistrate Judge … ultimately, the conditions of restrictions are the sole decision of the judge.”
In a March 24 email exchange with Rosales, obtained through an open records request, Judge Humberto Acosta took issue with her suggestion that “the problem of tracking cases” fell to the magistrate judges and that cases were “not presented to the DA’s office in sufficient time to meet the time deadlines in Article 17.151.” Rosales had asked Acosta, who became chief jail magistrate after Hamilton retired, to start informing the DA’s office weeks before incarcerated individuals approached their time limit.
The responsibility to “ensure that no one ever languishes in jail without legal cause,” Acosta replied, lay squarely with the DA. “This is deeply troubling to me, as your request makes it clear that the prosecutorial decision making of detained individuals is not being prioritized in your office.”
In her past career as a prosecutor, Hamilton often found herself explaining to victims that as bad as it felt for an alleged offender to be released from jail on bond, “this is what makes our system fair, even though it doesn’t seem very fair to you.” What would that conversation be like, she said, “now this person is getting out of jail because the prosecutor didn’t do their job? There’s a huge difference there.”
‘Waiting, waiting, waiting’
Justin Underwood has witnessed similar delays among a long list of clients he’s defending, most of whom are out on bond, but who have been waiting more than a year to see if the DA’s office will file their case for prosecution. “It’s like being on probation,” he said, “even though they haven’t been convicted of anything. And we’re just sitting here waiting, waiting, waiting.”
As of April 20, the DA’s office had more than 5,300 cases in screening that are waiting for a decision on whether to prosecute, according to an open records request. Among these are nearly 630 assault family violence cases — one in four of them for felonies. The office has denied multiple requests for the number of cases in screening that it inherited from the previous DA.
Jen is waiting too.
The case filed under Esparza’s administration is set for trial in June. But for everything else she’s reported to law enforcement since that one case was filed, she’s in the dark. She doesn’t know what the police or the DA have done with the new reports she’s made, despite numerous calls and attempts to find out.
Three years after her escape, “I’m still somewhere in between victim and survivor,” she said. “I can’t say I’m a complete survivor, because I’m still being victimized by the system. The system is not fixed.”
Just weeks ago, she was left with a chilling reminder of that fact — the business card of her aggressor, who still lives in Arizona, tucked into the windshield of Jen’s car. It was parked in a location he wasn’t supposed to know about.
“The way I’ll know I’m a survivor is when I can look in the mirror and that clock in my head that’s counting every infraction I do off of (my aggressor’s) list isn’t there anymore,” she said. “When I can eat a cookie without any anxiety. When I don’t have to look over my shoulder in the middle of the day, sitting in a church service. That’s when I’ll know I’m a survivor.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that several large Texas counties with domestic or family violence units were similar in size to El Paso. The counties are larger.