Grim milestone: Houston sets 20-year record for deadly domestic violence cases

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Even as Houston longs for a sense of normalcy after the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Amy Smith is under no illusions.

"Things in Houston haven't been normal since 2017, when Hurricane Harvey hit."

The deputy director of the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council watched as Category 4 winds brought more than just storm damage to our area.

Five years later, Smith sees the deadly rash of domestic violence cases in the county and statewide as a consequence of the storm.

"Harvey hit and then pretty much knocked out the criminal justice center downtown, where the courts were," Smith said. "That was getting fixed, everything was getting back to normal when the (COVID-19) pandemic hit, so we haven't had a normal year since 2017 and everything continues to escalate."

Thursday, ABC13's Brhe Berry gathered a panel of advocates and officials for a town hall, highlighting this dangerous trend, and to connect you with resources that can help save your life or the lives of people you love.

These numbers from the Texas Council of Family Violence are staggering:
  • Harris County saw a 40% increase in domestic violence homicides, from 2019-2020
  • In Texas, there was a 23% increase over the same period
  • Family violence homicides in Texas grew by nearly 80%, and more than half involved a gun
  • Houston Police said strangulation calls increased 130% in the first year of the pandemic



"Within the pandemic, the shadow pandemic of domestic violence came to the forefront because we were asking people to stay in your home to quarantine," HPD Lt. Kira Webster said.

"When you are normally out of the house for eight to 10 hours, and then you are literally put together, and that is all you have is one another, that's a big deal," HPD Lt. Julie Pleasant added. "And then your children are home to see that exposure."

'I didn't know...'

During Thursday's town hall, the panel identified two tragic but common factors in our growing number of cases: victims not realizing the danger they are in until it's too late - or the free help available to help people in these situations.

Marissa Alexander said when her then-husband threatened to kill her in 2010 over text messages found on her phone, the mother of three attempted to scare off her would-be attacker by firing a single warning shot into a wall.

Just eight days after giving birth to the couple's only daughter, Alexander said she feared for her life, but never once suspected she was already a victim.

"I didn't even consider it to be a domestic violence situation," she said.

In a 2010 deposition, Rico Gray admitted the domestic violence episode was not the couple's first. The year prior, Gray was arrested for pushing Alexander, causing her to fall "in the bathtub and hit her head."

But this time, it was Alexander who wound up in handcuffs. Her story went national when she was ultimately charged with three counts of aggravated assault stemming from the shooting, and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

After fighting for her freedom, she was released in 2015. Today, Alexander devotes her time as a public speaker and author focused on domestic violence.

"What we have found is a lot of folks don't understand that they are in a domestic violence situation because that's what they're used to, that's what they've grown up with, that's what they think a relationship is about," Smith said.

Fortunately, Smith said, Harris County and Houston benefits from having a number of resources for domestic violence victims, but could always use more.

"A few years ago, we thought this was a personal problem. This is a personal, family issue that has nothing to do with the rest of us," Crime Stoppers of Houston CEO Rania Mankarious said. "Now we're realizing it's everybody's problem. It's everybody's issue. It's everybody's responsibility to help."

If you need help getting out of a domestic violence situation, call the Houston Area Women's Center 24/7 hotline at 713-528-2121 or call AVDA at 713-224-9911. You can also visit click here to chat with an advocate online. If you are deaf or hard of hearing and need help, call 713-528-3625.



Viewers can watch the town hall anywhere they stream Eyewitness News, including on Roku and Fire TV. Just search "ABC13 Houston."

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