Erik Sternad goes into work every morning with the weight of 7,478 people on his shoulders.
That’s the number of domestic violence calls police in Ventura County received last year.
“Sometimes they come in whatever they were wearing in the middle of the night when the violence erupted and the police came to their house,” said Sternad, who runs the county’s largest domestic violence nonprofit, Interface Children and Family Services.
“It really traumatizes families, it traumatizes kids, and to see about a 5 percent increase from one year to the next—it’s horrible.”
While domestic violence calls to police are falling statewide, they’re rising in Ventura County, and first-responders are trying to figure out why.
The coastal county just north of Los Angeles had the highest rate of domestic-violence calls to police among any county larger than 65,000 people in 2012.
Ventura County has a population of about 835,000, making it the 12th largest county in the state.
Police and victims services agencies are trying to figure out why the area has seen an increase in calls and whether it points to a larger problem.
“It’s a serious problem and it presents an issue toward the community,” said Sgt. Sharon Giles, who heads the Oxnard Police Department’s Sexual Assault and Family Protection Unit. Oxnard is the largest city in the county and its police department is the only local agency with a full-time victim advocate, who helps victims file for restraining orders against their abusers, for example.
“It’s very important that we have a strong, consistent response by police to stop the cycle of domestic violence,” Giles said. “Children who are exposed to these kind of environments every day—if we don’t intervene in one way or another—these children are going to grow up and become violent themselves.”
Police received 13.4 domestic-violence calls for every 1,000 Ventura County residents last year, more than twice the statewide average.
The number of calls overall in California have been falling every year since 2000, when the state saw 8.9 calls for every 1,000 residents. Last year, the statewide average was 6.2 calls per 1,000 residents.
In Ventura County, meanwhile, the rate of calls began to decrease consistently in 2005, before rising again in 2008, likely because of the increased pressures the economic recession created for families, Sternad said. Although the rate decreased slightly in 2011 to 12.9 calls per 1,000 people, last year it climbed back to where it was in 2010.
Sternad estimates the number of victims is at least quadruple that, because many cases go unreported.
“If that’s the case, we’re talking about 28,000 incidences in our community,” he said. “That’s a big, big number.”
Sternad, who previously worked as a family therapist, believes education and awareness efforts in the community may account for a portion of the higher rate of calls. In other words, residents may be more likely to report domestic violence here than elsewhere in the state.
But, Sternad says, the higher numbers probably can’t all be chalked up to a possible higher rate of reporting. “We don’t think that could account for such a difference like the one we’re seeing,” he said. “We do think that there is something important going on. There’s something about our community that needs to be addressed.”
The calls to police come from all sectors of the county, cutting across racial, ethnic and economic lines, he said. Nonprofit leaders and police haven’t been able to zero in on what may be causing the higher rate of violence here compared to most other places in the state.
Only five other counties had higher domestic violence rates than Ventura County in 2012: Modoc, Lake, Glen, Inyo and Del Norte counties. All of them are relatively small counties, from 10,000 to 65,000 people.
Domestic violence advocates who watch the statistics statewide also haven’t been able to figure out why pockets of California see higher rates of calls, said Camille Hayes, spokeswoman for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.
“We do know that this is one of the most under reported crimes in the country, so any official stats we see are often low-balling,” she said.
Sternad thinks some of the increase could be due a lack of resources for victims. While domestic-violence calls to police have increased about 5 percent over the last five years in Ventura County, Interface’s domestic-violence budget has been cut by 19 percent, due to state and county grant funding decreases.
The nonprofit needs to raise $175,000—twice as much as in previous years—in order to sustain its domestic violence programs this fiscal year.
“I think the community is really asking for more support and education and resources, and that could very well be why we have such a high rate,” Sternad said. “Without those things, the problem is left to kind of fester and get worse and worse until something happens.”
At times, Interface’s 14-bed emergency shelter and 16-bed transitional shelter are full and, although the nonprofit helps families try to find another safe place to go, it’s sometimes not ideal, located far away from the children’s schools, for example.
In addition to running the shelters, the nonprofit teaches a teen-dating violence prevention program in ninth-grade health classes, sets up informational booths at community events and runs a treatment program for abusers.
Sternad would like to create more education programs, particularly for teens, because he sees the classes as a way to stop the cycle of violence.
“We know from our direct conversations with these teens that relationship violence can start very early, as early as age 14, and if we were able to get to every single ninth grader in the entire county, then we would be able to head off a lot of domestic violence later on,” he said.
“We as a community need to put more resources into supporting prevention efforts if we want to really decrease those numbers.”
The numbers tell a harrowing story, but it’s the stories of the people he meets in the shelters that haunt him most, Sternad said. But their stories, and Ventura County’s story, are still being written.
“There was a woman with two children, and after having been battered, she started a new life and is now a social worker,” he said. “Now she’s helping other women turn a significant new page in their lives.”