(Samantha Behling photo)

Know Your Neighbors: Jennifer Cacciapaglia

Domestic violence and human trafficking are epidemic problems in Rockford, and Jennifer Cacciapaglia is on a mission to change that.

(Samantha Behling photo)
(Samantha Behling photo)

Jennifer Cacciapaglia has never personally experienced domestic violence. She grew up in a safe, healthy and happy environment. But she was keenly aware domestic violence against women and children existed.

“I remember watching daytime television as a young child and seeing some horrific stories about domestic abuse,” she says. “It appalled me. I was raised to believe that we’re all in this together. And everyone needs help at some point.”

And that’s exactly what the Rockford native has done throughout her career. Cacciapaglia has worked as an assistant state’s attorney in Winnebago County and as Rockford city attorney. She co-founded Rockford Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (RAASE) and also served as education coordinator for The Amanda Reed Foundation, an organization formed to teach young people about unhealthy relationships that can turn into lethal violence.

A year ago, Mayor Tom McNamara tabbed Cacciapaglia as manager of the Mayor’s Office of Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking Prevention. Cacciapaglia is charged with coordinating law enforcement, civic and advocacy service groups to tackle human trafficking and domestic violence. Those who know her say Cacciapaglia is the right person for the job.

“She has the toughness of a lawyer, but great compassion,” says Paul Logli, former state’s attorney. “She sees the survivors who are being exploited and their history is tragic. That touches her and she’s highly offended by that. I admire her intellect, compassion and commitment. She’s doing a great job.”

To say domestic violence is a problem is an understatement. According to Cacciapaglia, domestic violence makes up about 34 percent of violent crime in Rockford: the national average is in the mid-20s. In Rockford, domestic violence cases have gone up an average of 3 percent every year for the past three years. To make matters worse, Rockford is No. 2 in the state, behind only Chicago, when it comes to human trafficking.

“It’s an epidemic here,” she says. “We are not doing enough when it comes to prevention. There are ways we can improve our response to survivors.”

Cacciapaglia spent her first 10 months on the job identifying gaps in the system. She conducted more than 200 interviews with stakeholders and survivors, hoping to learn about the barriers to preventing domestic violence and human trafficking. “We know now where to go to bridge those gaps,” she says. “And now comes the heavy lifting.”

She’s no stranger to carrying the load when it comes to tough work. Cacciapaglia developed her resilient work ethic thanks to the women in her family. “I was raised by a strong group of Italian women who taught me to help people when they are in trouble,” she says. “That drove me to be who I am.”

Cacciapaglia grew up on South Fifth Street in downtown Rockford. She spent summers with aunts and her Grandma Rotello, going to popular downtown spots such as Zammuto’s, Roma’s Bakery and Sunny Boy Bakery. She loved to cook and spend time in the backyard picking berries, flowers and plants. “That was my playground,” she says. She attended St. Anthony’s Elementary School and eventually moved with her parents to Las Vegas where her grandfather lived. After graduating from high school, she returned home to Rockford and attended Rock Valley College. At 17, she became pregnant with her daughter.

“I knew in high school I wanted to be a lawyer, but didn’t think I could with a baby,” she says. “But I could not be where I am today without the support of my family.”

After a semester at Rockford University, Cacciapaglia and her daughter moved to Carbondale, Ill., where she earned her bachelor’s in English and Women’s Studies from Southern Illinois University. She next graduated from law school at Northern Illinois University. Today, Cacciapaglia is married to husband Bob and has two children: Arielle, 28, and Nikolas, 22.

Her first job out of law school was in 1997 as a Winnebago County assistant state’s attorney prosecuting domestic violence cases. She wanted to be a trial attorney and was thrilled for the opportunity. “I wanted to put people in jail who hurt women and children,” she says. She also volunteered at WAVE (now Remedies) doing orders of protection. But after two years, the job took an emotional toll on her.

“The injuries inflicted on these children were the stuff nightmares are made of,” Cacciapaglia says. “It was difficult talking to the parents and seeing the gut-wrenching pain on their faces as they were learning what became of their children.” She became Rockford’s city attorney in 2000.

Fast forward to 2017. It was during now-Mayor Tom McNamara’s campaign that he and Cacciapaglia had some serious discussions about the domestic violence problem in Rockford.

“We went to lunch and Jennifer said to me, ‘Domestic violence is a huge issue,’” says McNamara. “She showed me the statistics. Her passion for it blew me away. The next day I had a campaign meeting and I said ‘We’re going to add domestic violence into our public safety speech.’

“Jennifer works extremely hard, and what makes her unique is she’s incredibly passionate. It’s real with her. I’m overwhelmed with the amount of work she’s already accomplished.”

Cacciapaglia was among several candidates interviewed for the position and was eventually hired in January 2018.

She was up for the challenge. “To move our community, to shift our culture, we established a community mandate that domestic violence and human trafficking will not be allowed to exist in Rockford, Illinois, and Winnebago County,” she says. “That’s a heavy lift, to say the least. It’s scary but very exciting to have an opportunity to work in this field that I’ve always been passionate about and have always believed in.”

“Domestic violence doesn’t start with a punch,” she adds. “Otherwise, we’d have much less of it. It starts with insidious nonphysical, jealousy, controlled unhealthy behaviors. The problem across the country and in Rockford is we don’t arm our young people with the tools to recognize those problems. By the time it escalates into physical behavior, it becomes a complicated, messy web.”

Cacciapaglia is pulling together a task force to develop metrics to help fill the gaps. The plan is to create that community mandate against domestic violence. They’re working with the police department to build best practices and new trainings so officers can employ different tools on the scene to build stronger cases in court. They’re working with the state’s attorney’s office to get more survivor involvement in the courts. They’re partnering with the school district to better prepare teachers to identify children impacted by domestic violence, which influences grades and graduation rates. And they’re teaming with juvenile probation to find intervention programs to reach children before they’re too far gone.

“Domestic violence is the root cause of Rockford’s violent crimes problem,” Cacciapaglia says. “It affects every artery of our community.”

And that’s where a family justice center can help. Cacciapaglia and her team are working on creating a facility that offers medical care; a safe place to interact with law enforcement and the state’s attorney’s office; a place to provide communication with the school district, counseling, job training and restoration.

“The building is not the magic; it’s the relationships formed inside,” she says. “We’re missing the cohesive connectivity of the wonderful agencies in our community who work separately. We need to work together so a survivor can come to one place.”

The city got a federal grant to pay for a project manager position. Private funds have been raised to bring in architects for technical assistance. A location committee will determine whether a facility is built or existing space is used. Cacciapaglia’s goal is to open a facility within the next 18 months.

“There is a tremendous amount of hope around this work,” she says. “Let’s be the community that moves the needle when it comes to this issue so our community is safer and thrives.

“To the survivors, we see them, we hear them, and we believe them. We want their voices to lead this movement.”