Toward a Safer Rockford: The Uncomfortable Truth About Domestic Violence

Not only is it a serious contributor to violent crime in Rockford, but it’s also a drain on our economy, a threat to our prosperity and a vicious, repeating pattern that’s hard to break. As local leaders coalesce to fight crime, they’re targeting long-term, root cause changes that hold the promise of positive change in our community for generations to come. The question now is: How quickly can they move the needle?

The video was chilling enough. But then he posted it to his ex-girlfriend’s Facebook page, barely 3 hours before he was arrested and charged with her kidnapping and murder.

“People are going to wonder why I did what I did,” he confessed in the video.

Ashley Hardin didn’t have to become yet another Rockford-area homicide. Her story could easily have been somebody else’s in a town where 40% of all violent crime involves domestic violence.
Spend a day in the Winnebago County Courthouse and you’ll see those statistics play out – neighbors or siblings feuding, young women punching their mothers in the face, men beating girlfriends, wives and/or children. And on the stories go.

Last year, the city recorded 2,331 violent crimes, 3,891 property crimes and 1,874 aggravated assaults. Police handled 24 murders, 255 robberies and 185 hit-and-run traffic crashes. It was a bloody year, by all accounts, and 2022 is keeping pace.

(Click to Enlarge) Violent crime and aggravated assaults remain stubbornly high in the Rockford area, even compared with the early 1990s, when crime rates spiked. As of early August, crime rates for 2022 were on pace with other recent years.

From the eighth floor of City Hall, Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara is troubled by those numbers, but he’s watching one statistic especially closely: the percentage of domestic-related violent crime. Around mid-July, it stood at roughly 35%, a slight improvement from the year before.

When he first entered office in 2017, nobody was recording the data. There were, at the time, only anecdotal recognitions that something was wrong. And, as McNamara asked around, he found it was hard to ignore. So, he tapped Jennifer Cacciapaglia, a local lawyer and advocate against domestic and sexual violence, to head up the new Mayor’s Office of Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking Prevention.

Jennifer Cacciapaglia

For 10 months, Cacciapaglia met with local advocates, survivors and others in the system to understand what was going on. She found that, not only was domestic violence a significant drain on the police but it had a ripple effect throughout the community. Violence in the home was overwhelming the court system and social service agencies, dragging down employment statistics and school performance, and perpetuating itself in a vicious generational cycle.

“We also started to take a look at our violent crime that was driven by youth,” adds Cacciapaglia. “Our Rockford Police Department conducted a hand analysis of police reports from 2016 to 2020 and discovered that anywhere from 65% to 75% of our young, violent offenders – our carjackers, children with guns, children committing despairing acts on our streets – were cross-referenced as being victims of or witnesses to domestic or sexual violence.”

Over the past five years now, Cacciapaglia and McNamara have pursued a mission of root cause systems change as they try to stamp out domestic violence one family at a time. It’s a daunting task, but already there are signs of hope. The Mayor’s Task Force on domestic violence has drawn together nearly every player in the system and beyond, as everyone from government agencies and court personnel to social service providers, domestic abuse survivors, charities, business leaders and more collaborate like never before.

“The good news is that we can do it,” says Cacciapaglia. “We have the talent, the determination, the skill – and we know exactly what the problem is.”

Their work is guided by detailed research, planning documents and action plans with specific goals, and monthly meetings keep everyone abreast of progress. The city’s Family Peace Center and other programs are changing outcomes. Dozens of other changes are happening across the city. This is a long-term goal – a generational change – with a thousand small achievements that together demonstrate progress.

“We are impatient, and we have a wicked sense of urgency,” says Cacciapaglia. “We know that, despite our efforts, there are youth we cannot reach as quickly as we want to, and that troubles us. We have to balance our efforts in prevention and intervention with our community’s health and safety, without question.”

McNamara feels that same sense of urgency, particularly the political pressure to start moving the needle.

“This isn’t a lack of patience as if we don’t care where you’re coming from,” he says. “We understand all of the other stressors you have in your position as a state’s attorney or judge or school district or whatever. But to get to everyone’s goal, we see a path and it doesn’t involve doing the same things we’ve always done.”

Identifying the Problem

Sgt. Dave Nicosia was still a young police officer on patrol when he saw the guy’s rage boil out of control. Dad was yelling at mom. Infant was cuddled in mom’s arms. Dad’s fist found mom’s face and the infant went flying.

“Thank God he wasn’t seriously hurt, but think of the emotions it takes to attack your wife or girlfriend while she’s holding your baby,” Nicosia says. “That’s how dangerous it is.”

Sgt. Dave Nicosia

Today, as head of the domestic violence unit for Rockford Police Department, Nicosia reviews every heartbreaking report that passes his desk daily. Each one represents a call from a concerned neighbor, family member, victim or anonymous tipster. Each one reveals a dangerous moment and a family in crisis.

Domestic violence takes many forms, but by far the most dominant is intimate partner violence (IPV). It accounts for nearly 86% of cases in Illinois, according to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA). This can include married spouses or dating couples, both heterosexual or same-sex. Most abusers are between the age of 20 and 40, and more than half are white; about 25% are black and 22% Latino. They’re overwhelmingly male.

ICJIA research shows there are several risk factors associated with these aggressors, including personality and mental health disorders, with sociopathic, antisocial and emotional dysregulation tendencies. They can be manipulative, violent, coercive, misogynistic, controlling or acting in self-defense. Post-traumatic stress, neurological injuries, or alcohol and substance abuse may also factor in.

“Domestic violence is a choice,” says Cacciapaglia. “These things are certainly stressors that anybody, at any point, in this community experiences on any given day. But not everybody in this community or across this country who experiences those stressors is choosing to engage in harmful and abusive tactics.”

When the police respond to these situations, the call can involve any number of other agencies, from the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) to the Crisis Co-Responder team that sends social workers to mental health crises. A new Handle with Care program alerts counselors at Rockford Public Schools whenever a child’s family is involved with a domestic situation.

“Even if they weren’t hit or anything, the kids are absorbing this violence,” Nicosia says. “They’re soaking this in; they’re scared and confused, and we don’t want that to be the normal for them. They shouldn’t have to deal with that.”

But first, it takes actually making the call – something victims and their families often hesitate to do, for any number of reasons. That’s not OK to Nicosia.

“No one has to put up with domestic violence,” he says. “You don’t have to be the victim. There’s help out there.”

And to the family or friends who most likely suspect something is wrong in their loved one’s relationships, he has a stark warning, honed after decades on the force – and too many cases like Ashley Hardin’s.

“Reach out. Make a phone call if something’s going on, because today’s argument could be tomorrow’s homicide,” he says. “And we don’t want that. It’s better to overreact.”

The Family Peace Center is designed to be a comfortable, relaxing space for a person in the midst of trauma. Insights provided by survivors of domestic violence helped to inform spaces like the play therapy room, children and teen spaces, the main lobby and the entrance.

Getting Out

Maybe it’s tempting to ask, why don’t they just leave? In truth, it’s complicated.

“It is the one crime where the perpetrator is certainly going to return to the scene, and now the damage is going to be escalated,” says Cacciapaglia. “The abuse will escalate.”

Children may also be caught in the middle, especially if divorce and custody are involved. Illinois courts are tasked with making decisions that are in the best interest of the child, and that typically means reunification of the child with both parents. Domestic violence convictions won’t necessarily restrict a parent’s rights.

“I can’t tell you how many times survivors tell me, ‘I wish I would have just stayed, because now he’s got access to my child and I’m not there if he loses it. If he gets angry or upset, there’s nobody in front of my child in that space,’” says Cacciapaglia.

For those families that need an escape, the Family Peace Center, 315 N. Main St., in downtown Rockford, is a primary starting place. As soon as they walk in the door, survivors are greeted with a calming, relaxed atmosphere. Every part of the design – from the natural landscapes on the warm gray walls to the furry carpets and relaxing music – is there to calm a person in the midst of trauma. There’s a child care space where children and teens can relax. A cozy lobby has computers and couches for parents to rest.

“When you walk in, we’re triaging your immediate needs,” says Cacciapaglia. “Have you eaten? Are you safe? Do you need housing tonight? And, what are the next best steps?”

Nearly 30 service providers inside the Peace Center – from the police and court system to legal advocates, therapists, faith leaders and housing advocates – help families to navigate those next steps. Funded entirely through grants, the Family Peace Center is built on a national model that exists in more than a dozen states, including Oklahoma, Georgia, Oregon, California and Indiana. Rockford’s center is the only such place in Illinois – and people from Chicago are calling for advice, says Cacciapaglia.

Perhaps one of the most significant steps is navigating the legal system. Court advocates are on hand to help file orders of protection, a legal avenue to keep perpetrators distant. Advocates from Prairie State Legal Services and Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic can help with matters like divorce, child custody and breaking leases.

“I cannot overstate the importance of getting a survivor in touch with legal counseling,” says Cacciapaglia. “The decisions you make can affect your decisions down the road in ways you can’t understand.”

RPD’s domestic violence unit operates behind an inconspicuous door at the end of the hall, where a special room includes a microphone for recording victim statements. Nicosia and four detectives make themselves available during the Peace Center’s daily operating hours, Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“I think one of the most important things survivors have talked about is that it’s very difficult to go from place to place and have to tell their story over and over and relive that trauma again and again,” says Delicia Harris, whole family housing case manager for the Peace Center. “Sometimes they have three or four kids and they don’t have transportation, so telling their story over and over again is just not good. It helps to have this type of organization where you can get everything you need done in one spot.”

Delicia Harris

Harris spent more than 15 years with the City of Rockford helping homeless people find permanent housing. In her current role at the Peace Center, she uses those same advocacy skills to help survivors escape into emergency and permanent housing. The first stop is most often a shelter, such as Remedies Renewing Lives, but that’s not always the best option, she says.

Backed by funding from the state’s legalized marijuana tax, Harris helps survivors to connect the dots – gift cards for Doordash so they don’t have to go out in public, feminine and personal hygiene products, toys for the children, job training and access to employers. Sometimes, she’ll help with other needs, like gas for the car, new locks or a video doorbell.

The people Harris assists are in a hard place, and they’re carrying plenty of emotional weight. She shows them they’re not alone.

“I’m not doing this because I read it in a book and saw how it’s done,” she says. “I do this because I’ve lived it; it’s happened to me, and not just one time; I’ve had to come through all of that. Was it an easy process? No. But I went to school, got my master’s degree, I moved on and now I’ve got a good career. I’m always going to be a survivor.”

Now, she’s paying it forward in ways nobody could for her. As a member of the Peace Center’s Voices committee, she and nearly a dozen other survivors use their experiences to inform every part of the Peace Center, from aesthetics to processes and programs.

“There was no Family Peace Center when I experienced domestic violence and sexual assault,” she says. “I had to bear it alone, and I think that if it were not for the church and some family members, I don’t know what would have happened. But to have had this place and to have known there was a place that specialized in what I needed at the time, I don’t think it would have taken me so long to get past it. It was years I was stuck, spinning my wheels.”

If you’re experiencing a domestic violence situation, help is a phone call away:

Remedies Renewing Lives Hotline
Available 24/7 | (815) 962-6102

Family Peace Center
Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m. | (779) 348-7600

Seeking Help

First, they call.

A live person is always on the other end of the phone when someone calls the hotline at Remedies Renewing Lives, a domestic violence shelter and services provider in Rockford.

“First and foremost, it’s a source of support and validation, listening and believing the survivor,” says Becky Winstead, vice president of domestic violence services. “We’ll find out what their main concerns are or help them find what they’re looking for. If it’s a particular resource, we try to connect them.”

Becky Winstead

Remedies offers emergency shelter for anyone – adults, children and teens, regardless of gender or sexual identity. Services are free, voluntary and confidential. Everything here is focused on what the survivor needs in that moment.

Of the more than 1,500 adults and children served at Remedies last year, two-thirds came for counseling, advocacy, therapy, legal help and support groups including one for partner abuse intervention. Nearly 400 needed emergency or transitional housing.

Additionally, the organization staffs the Domestic Violence Assistance Center at the county courthouse. Of the team’s four advocates on site, three can assist with completing order of protection forms, accompanying victims to court and helping them to navigate the court system.

“Someone might come and use some services and then not come back for a few months, until we hear from them when they need help again,” says Winstead. “Or, they’ll call the hotline when they feel they need to connect with someone and get support. At the other end, someone could be in a situation where someone is very seriously injured, in a domestic violence incident or domestic battery, strangulation, using a weapon or in some other way causing physical harm.”

When is it best to call for help?

“I think at any point that someone is feeling unsafe in any way,” says Winstead. “If they’re unsafe in their relationship, it doesn’t need to escalate to a certain point.”

The Legal System

Nikki Ticknor has seen both sides of the domestic violence spectrum. In her former career as a probation officer, she heard heart-wrenching stories from perpetrators of domestic violence. As a former advocate, she helped victims to find healing. Now, as deputy court administrator for the 17th Circuit’s domestic violence coordinated court, she acts as a troubleshooter, ensuring everyone can access the legal system while she manages the difficult dynamics of domestic violence cases. Inside the court’s domestic violence courtroom, the Hon. Jennifer Clifford hears related cases from Winnebago County.

“We try to view everything through the lens of victim safety and offender accountability,” Ticknor says. “So, although the court is neutral in the proceedings, we do believe strongly that we want people to feel safe and we don’t want people to feel re-triggered. So, you’ll hear a lot of language around being trauma-informed or trauma-responsive.”

Nikki Ticknor, deputy court administrator for the 17th Judicial Circuit’s domestic violence court, helps to ensure everyone has fair access to the legal system, regardless of whether they’re victims or perpetrators of domestic violence.

There are two ways in which the courts become involved: someone files an order of protection or someone gets arrested.

An order of protection can restrict contact between people, prohibit threats and abuse, require counseling or install other protections over a child or family member. Such orders can be filed at the Family Peace Center or at the Winnebago County Courthouse, 400 W. State St., in Rockford.

When someone arrives at the courthouse, advocates working with the 17th Circuit help the person to think through the process and its ramifications.

“When you come down to it, it’s a tool. It’s a court order,” Ticknor says. “But that’s it. It’s not a shield. It’s not a fix-all, so people have to decide if that’s OK for them.”

Should someone file from the Peace Center, advocates there can help with filling out paperwork and seeing a judge remotely. Ticknor says she and her team established several remote options early in the COVID pandemic and calls it “forward thinking” for a court system. The ultimate goal, she adds, is to have a system that’s “user-friendly,” particularly for victims, who might find the courthouse intimidating.

“We’ve seen our filings go up for orders of protection, and we’re still waiting to look at the trends to see if it’s related to remote proceedings or COVID,” says Ticknor. “I tend to think it’s because accessibility has gone up.”

Last year, the 17th Circuit logged about 1,400 criminal cases in its domestic violence court and just over 3,000 protective orders – both orders of protection for family violence and no-contact orders for stalking or sexual assault.

“I’ve learned we are second in the state behind Cook County, so that’s quite high,” Ticknor says.
Criminal proceedings begin when law enforcement gets involved. At the county jail, newly arrived inmates are interviewed by a pre-trial services officer from the 17th Circuit. They gather information such as criminal history, drug history, behavioral health history, gang affiliations and ties to the community. This information, along with an evidence-based risk assessment, is compiled into a written report for use by the court and involved attorneys.

“We’re doing an in-depth interview with individuals starting in the wee hours of the morning so that the judge who’s in the courtroom has a very detailed picture of the person standing in front of them,” says Tom Jakeway, trial court administrator. “What risk does this person stand to the community or a particular individual? What risk do they have to potentially fail to appear if they’re released?”

The assessment may also include the DVSI, a tool angled specifically at the risk of recidivism in intimate partner domestic cases. What the DVSI doesn’t include – and McNamara believes should – is a tie-in to strangulation.

“If you look at shootings of police, almost all have domestic violence and all of them have strangulation,” adds McNamara.

“And you are 700 times more likely, national statistics tell us, to die if you have been strangled,” adds Cacciapaglia.

A local task force is working to implement a strangulation supplement. Ticknor, who co-chairs the task force with Cacciapaglia, explains that other tools already measure how likely a person is to commit a homicide. Tools like the DVSI can’t easily be changed, she says, unless they’ve first gone through a validation process.

Ali Friend, who serves on the strangulation task force in her role as supervisor of the domestic violence unit for the State’s Attorney’s office of Winnebago County, believes these various assessments are just part of a prosecutor’s overall decision.

“If there are a lot of red flags to me, based on my experience and training, and if the defendant scores low on the DVSI, then I’m going to ignore the DVSI results and treat them a little higher than what the report suggests,” she says.

Her unit of five attorneys handles domestic violence-related cases. They begin preparing for bond court – a suspect’s first appearance before a judge – while reviewing all possible evidence, including police reports and a probable cause statement. Friend guesses at least half of suspects involved in a domestic case have some prior criminal history.

Once the suspect arrives in Courtroom B at the criminal justice center, the state’s attorney can recommend detainment or bond and any additional conditions, such as limiting contact between people or prohibiting the use of drugs and alcohol. The judge may add his or her own conditions, as well. But here’s the rub: there’s no guarantee the suspect will follow those court orders, and unless violations are reported, there’s no way to hold them accountable, says Friend. There’s no easy way to ensure the victim’s safety between the suspect’s bond hearing and trial – and suspects will go to trial as often as possible, she adds.

“In general, this is one of the highest-volume courtrooms,” she says. “You have defendants who are abusers – so they’re manipulative, they don’t like being told what to do, they don’t like authority.”
When these suspects demand a speedy trial, they could be trying to intimidate the victim, Friend adds. So, attorneys are turning to evidence-based prosecution, where police reports, past relationships and prior criminal charges paint a pattern of behavior consistent with the crime at hand. Nicosia adds that police do what they can to log every call to a domestic situation, even if it doesn’t involve an arrest. That paper trail provides its own evidence.

“Domestic abusers think they know the system better than anyone else,” says Friend. “I have done a few cases where the defendant was pro se (defending himself). Those are probably the worst cases ever, because they’re uncomfortable. They’re cross-examining the witness and it’s terrible. On one trial, the jury came back in about 15 minutes. They were disgusted. They said, ‘We were watching the abuse unfold before our eyes.’”

The Perps, Beyond Bars

Rockford’s response to domestic violence focuses almost exclusively on victims, in particular women and children. Few places treat the perpetrators.

But the men and women who land in the Partner Abuse Intervention Program (PAIP) at Children’s Home & Aid in Rockford find out quickly there’s no judgement to be found within these walls.

“The guys are waiting for us to start judging them, and I just can’t,” says Erin Bergren, clinical supervisor. “I have a history myself of domestic violence. I grew up not knowing it was wrong, and once I realized it was wrong and went to school and work, I understood that what I was doing was wrong. I didn’t know that before. If we treat them as monsters and we expect the family unit to go on without them, I’m sorry but that’s not a good family unit.”

Men and women in PAIP come from a variety of places, including self-referrals, court orders and contacts with other social service agencies – including the welfare programming at Children’s Home & Aid, an organization that serves families in crisis through several approaches. They come because they’re identified as the primary aggressor in a relationship, and they’ve used tools like power, control and physical violence upon an intimate partner. A similar program at Children’s Home & Aid, called Turning Points, serves those who have used retaliatory violence or defensive violence upon a partner.

PAIP is held in group sessions that last 90 minutes each and run for 27 weeks. During that time, participants cover three-week sessions on nine themes, each of which relates to aspects of domestic violence. With physical violence at the core of every theme, Bergren and his team cover topics like power and control, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, denying and blaming, using children, using “male privilege,” economic abuse, coercion and threats, and sexual abuse or violence.

Participants can join every three weeks with the start of a new theme. Newcomers are slow to open up, says Bergren, but they soon learn from the veterans in the group how to process their pasts, find empathy for others, and build skills for conflict resolution and de-escalation.

“They’ve hurt people, but what we’ve come to understand is that hurt people hurt other people,” says Bergren. “I’ve sat in assessments with these men and have heard some of the most horrid stories of the life they’ve lived coming to this point, and they enter into these relationships using survival tools that have gotten them through parts of their life they might not have survived otherwise.”

PAIP doesn’t excuse their behavior, Bergren adds. Rather, it takes a trauma-informed approach to reach the source of their behavior.

Lori Poppen

“We find that a lot of the children who are involved in Children’s Home & Aid services and have experienced trauma were in families where there is intimate partner violence,” says Lori Poppen, director of behavioral health programs. “Those children are much more likely to use violence and be involved in the juvenile justice system, so our focus is through a trauma lens.”

Bergren finds it interesting that the dominant mindset focuses on trauma in women and children, while avoiding that term with abusers – when the evidence shows a generational pattern.

“They have this label that they’re batterers, they’re monsters, they’re this and that,” adds Bergren. “I’ve heard heart-wrenching stories from these guys about their mothers getting beaten up, mutilated, killed. I’ve seen guys just break down and become absolutely unresponsive with emotion when they’re talking about mom’s boyfriend breaking the neck of his pet because mom wouldn’t do what the boyfriend wanted. There are some tremendous experiences these men have gone through that would hit every bit into PTSD or other traumatic responses.”

Since Children’s Home & Aid launched PAIP eight years ago, it’s served more than 2,000 men and women. Out of the 181 served last year, almost half completed the program. Another 37% finished the year on track to complete, while 16% were terminated, primarily for poor attendance or behavior, lack of accountability, re-offending or by court order.

Tracking the long-term effects of the PAIP approach remains a concern for all involved. Recidivism rate is the “golden number,” says Bergren, and while a pilot program in Stephenson County is starting to paint a small portrait, its findings are limited only to offenders processed within that jurisdiction.

“I don’t have a way to track individuals and find out if they re-offend in three months or six months or if they move to Dane County or Cook County,” says Bergren. “There are so many variables it’s so hard to track recidivism.”

A 2018 Loyola University study sheds some light on those who’ve gone through probation in Winnebago County. Covering people convicted of any crime, the study found 63% of those discharged from probation had no arrests in the ensuing three years. About 9% were arrested on domestic violence charges. The likelihood of additional arrests was higher for those who were younger and had longer criminal histories.

“I think we both know individual stories of participants who have come through, and we hear the change in them at the end of their time,” says Poppen. “That sort of thing, for me, is a bright spot. Each person’s journey is different, and that change looks different for each participant.”

Hurdles to Progress

January brings a whole new reality in the recidivism question. That’s when Illinois’ Pre-Trial Fairness Act effectively ends cash bond. Under the new law, everyone who is arrested is presumed to be released following an initial court appearance – unless the state’s attorney’s office files a petition seeking to detain the individual. The judge then determines whether the offense is eligible for detention, or whether detention is necessary. The law permits those arrested for domestic battery, violation of an order of protection, and stalking charges to be detained until trial, but many other crimes are not subject to detainment.

That’s problematic for McNamara, Friend and others interviewed in this story, who are concerned about the impact of suspected criminals walking free.

“The judge can always set a condition that says they can’t have any contact with the victim, or they can’t go within 300 feet of their residence, or something like that,” says Friend. “But there’s no ability to enforce that or know what’s happening. Unless the victim reports it, we’re never going to know. That’s the reality of the situation.”

She believes electronic monitoring may be a helpful accountability measure, but there’s no program like that in Winnebago County. So, the state’s attorney’s office is more likely to seek detainment, she says.

“I think it works better for domestic cases, because the offender is going to be held until their trial, so that gives the victim a longer window of protection to be able to leave the relationship, get set up in new housing and move on,” says Friend. “Now, they’re going to have more than 24 hours before the perp is released from custody. But for other crimes, that’s a little scarier.”

(Click to Enlarge) Since McNamara’s team began recording the percentage of domestic-related violent crime, the rate has risen – but that’s to be expected, he says, as a result of greater awareness.

Friend believes there are other weaknesses in the legal system, as well, including the lack of “teeth” in dealing with repeat offenders – particularly those who are charged with stalking or violating orders of protection. No matter if they’re charged twice or 100 times, the sentencing range is still the same. If a defendant is sentenced to prison, there are several sentencing credits imposed by the Illinois Department of Corrections that could render the sentence almost null.

“Under the sentencing guidelines, the judge is required to first consider probation as an option,” Friend says. “They want to offer treatment and services and things like that, regardless of prior domestic violence history.”

Jakeway, who’s on a statewide committee that’s developing guidance on the new laws around detention, remains focused on the court’s role as a “referee” to the laws set out by Illinois legislators.

“We’re the objective third branch of government,” he says. “It’s our mission to uphold the rule of law and afford individuals with access to justice and due process – and that means following the correct process and procedures, giving everyone their opportunity to be heard. We never want to lose sight that it is our role to be the referees or neutral arbiters of justice.”

McNamara’s also keeping his eyes on young criminals, the types who were affected by domestic violence as children. His office is backing initiatives like Camp Hope – a weeklong camp for kids affected by trauma.

But he also wants to see stepped-up enforcement and revised laws that hold young criminals accountable, particularly if or when they’re recruited by local gang members.

“Once they are running around our community with guns, there do need to be consequences,” he says.

Hope for the Future

Nobody denies the stats look awful, least of all McNamara. Since he took up the charge against domestic violence, the rate of domestic-related violent crime has steadily grown, climbing 14 percentage points to almost 40% last year. That part was expected, he says, assuming that growing awareness and new resources would bring more victims out of the shadows. What was, perhaps, less expected was the way so many people coalesced around a common cause.

(Click to Enlarge) Since 1985, Rockford has averaged about 17 homicides per year. As of late August, Rockford had already notched 11 homicides after a string of violent years.

“So many groups for the first time ever are actually all focusing in on domestic violence and all focusing on the youth, and they’re doing it from a data-driven, collaborative way,” he says. “Is everyone at the table that needs to be? No. But are there a lot more than I can ever recall? Absolutely. There’s a ton of hope for the future.”

Now, in an environment of political pressures, social media frenzies, movements to either defund or arm the police, ongoing criminal activity and all of the other things that bombard City Hall on a normal day, McNamara has one overriding question: Can we stay the course?

“Moving rapidly with no patience is what we need,” he says. “And, until everyone starts a full-court press it’ll take longer. We’ll make sure it’s going to get done. That’s why I’m optimistic. I know that, at the end of the day, it will be done. But it could be a lot simpler and save a lot of lives – improve a lot of lives – and make our community the special place it is and deserves to be.”

The Family Peace Center’s Voices committee is seeking domestic abuse survivors who are interested in guiding the center into its next phases. Survivors must be removed from the abusive situation.

Call Delicia Harris at
(779) 348-7818 to learn more.