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County Sexual Assault Response Team aiming to protect victims, serve justice

Denton County’s Sexual Assault Response Team is a state-mandated group of eight leaders, designed to standardize the county’s approach to sexual assault cases. While its formation was a requirement, one of its chief administrators says the program is far from just going through the motions.

The SART team was birthed a few weeks ago from Texas Senate Bill 476, which mandates all of the state’s counties form one. Authored by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the bill has clear-cut requirements on whom the team needs to include and what it needs to be doing.

In short, the adult sexual assault response teams will write up a countywide protocol on the handling of sexual assaults. They will also make a report to county commissioners each odd-numbered year, including how many sexual assaults were reported, how many investigations were conducted and information on indictments resulting from those cases.

The bill lays out 11 individual topics for the protocol to include, ranging from victim medical care to the investigations and prosecutions of sexual assault cases.

For the purpose, Denton County commissioners appointed eight people from across the county:

  • Lori Nelson and Daysia Pinke, Denton County Friends of the Family
  • Michael Dickens, assistant district attorney
  • Ed Barrett, Denton County Sheriff’s Office
  • Trent Jones, Denton Police Department
  • Brittany Waymack, Denton County MHMR
  • Sonia Sims and Cindy Burnette, Texas Health Resources

Lori Nelson and Pinke, appointed the team’s chief administrators, are authorized to add other members as the program moves forward.

Dickens said the main benefit of the SART team is that it directly brings different agencies together.

“I think, ultimately, it’s going to have a real good collaborative effect,” Dickens said. “I’m hopeful it will lead to people being able to contact colleagues on a regular basis when they need help or when they need someone to talk to about a case.”

Nelson, whose role at Friends of the Family has placed her at the forefront of the team, acknowledged some people might assume the team will simply go through the motions to fulfill the state’s requirements. But in actuality, she said, those assumptions aren’t true.

“When I was talking with the agencies, there was this same sense of ‘Thank goodness,’” Nelson said. “We’ve been responding to sexual assaults forever and not one agency in law enforcement does them all the same. There’s a sense of excitement about creating something that’s going to make a difference.”

The SART team is required to write the new countywide protocol by next December. Lori Nelson said that protocol will standardize the way sexual assault cases are handled. From the way police respond to initial reports to the way victims receive care, the team is aiming to make sure there’s a standard in place for every step of the process.

One of the focus areas in Denton County, Nelson said, is the police aspect. The county has over 30 different law enforcement agencies, which can create policy differences when it comes to sexual assaults. And some officers may have received their training many years ago.

“Across the county, there’s a lack of training in sexual assault dynamics and how victims may present in trauma,” Nelson said. “I’m sure [officers] all have some level of training about victim trauma. For some of them, it may have been what they got in the academy — and who knows what.”

The bill carves out a multiyear role for the SART team. Nelson said she thinks some improvement can be immediate, but that it will take more time to see how the whole process is shaping up.

“I’d like to say that as soon as we start meeting and communicating with each other, we’ll see a level of improvement,” Nelson said. “In reality, it takes time for that process. Cases filed today likely won’t be prosecuted until a year from now.”

Another chapter of COVID: Denton County's top 5 pandemic articles of 2021

This coming March will bring the two-year anniversary of the pandemic’s arrival in Denton County.

Despite promising signs to the contrary earlier in the year, local residents are still dealing with the coronavirus as part of their daily lives.

The Denton Record-Chronicle, just as in 2020, remained committed to covering the pandemic and its impact on the area throughout the year.

Below, in no particular order, are the top five pandemic articles of 2021:

One year later: The local voices leading Denton County through the pandemic

The coronavirus was first identified in a Denton County resident on March 15, 2020.

Denton County Public Health had confirmed at least another 70,005 more residents had the virus within the following year, and 431 of those people died of COVID-19 over the same period.

The Record-Chronicle interviewed nine community leaders about the impact of the pandemic and their thoughts about one year in the rearview. Excerpts of those interviews ran in the paper alongside a four-part timeline of the biggest pandemic milestones to mark the grim anniversary.

What makes the TMS vaccination clinics tick

Texas Motor Speedway became a constant mention across Denton County, including in government meetings, in ways NASCAR hadn’t achieved due to the racetrack’s importance in the COVID-19 vaccination effort.

A pop-up fleet of workers, government officials and volunteers helped to get hundreds of thousands of vaccinations into arms by the time it closed up as a mass vaccination site in May.

Efficiency peaked at around 1,000 vaccinations an hour at the facility, which cost the Denton County government about $250,000 a month in various rental fees associated with the Fort Worth location.

DCPH hosts first vaccine clinic for kids under 11

The first round of COVID-19 vaccinations in Denton County began in late December 2020, but it would be nearly a year before local children under the age of 12 would have their chance.

More than 62% of Denton County residents at least 5 years of age had been fully vaccinated within the first month after DCPH began vaccinations for children ages 5-11.

That beat the Texas average by more than 2 percentage points.

County hospitals in worst crisis since pandemic peak

Denton County hospitals in worst crisis since pandemic peak

With the recent surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations not letting up and nurses becoming more difficult to find, Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson said Tuesday the time is now for real concern over the county’s hospital system.

Denton County saw extreme highs and lows in COVID statistics throughout 2021. The largest single-day increase in local coronavirus cases — 1,064 — was on Jan. 19, 2021.

Hospitals were butting up against their capacity regularly, and easy access to the COVID-19 vaccine was still week or months away for the average resident.

DCPH was reporting well over 600 new virus cases each day across Denton County in January, and that metric fluctuated from 450-700 over the next several weeks.

County health director: ‘This is where we dreamed of being’ at start of pandemic

The past year might have seen our local peak, but it also saw some of the lowest infection rates reported in the pandemic’s nearly two years.

Average daily infections had dipped into the low triple digits by late March. It had dipped into the double-digit range by mid-May.

Cases peaked again in September before seeming to plateau toward the end of the year.

The Watchdog: Meet this year’s inductees into the Watchdog Hall of Fame. They fought for you

Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

My Christmas gift to five noteworthy Texans is to honor them with induction into my Watchdog Hall of Fame.

My gift to you is to introduce them to you, if you don’t already know them. They demonstrated how watchdogging can improve the lives of others.

I launched the hall in 2015 with the idea of honoring state lawmakers who worked to fix readers’ top concerns including electricity reform, insurance fairness, privacy and a required roofers’ license. Although many of those problems haven’t been solved, I gave high points for effort.

I haven’t inducted anyone since 2019. I’m not in the mood to honor state officials anymore.

This year, in a major shift, there are no state or local leaders on the welcoming list. My 2021 criteria are that these folks went above and beyond what is expected of them — and that their actions made a difference.

Officer Kayla Walker

Kayla Walker

Out of all the police officers in Texas only one was brave enough in 2021 to stand up and reveal to her city council that her department was using illegal traffic ticket quotas to rate and reward officers.

Meet Richardson patrol officer Kayla Walker. Badge #1189.

The 13-year veteran challenged the city to reform itself. The city hired an outside law firm to investigate. Without Walker’s help (she didn’t trust the firm’s independence), the investigation found nothing amiss. Internal emails she provided The Watchdog showed otherwise.

Walker says that for violating the code of silence, she received in retaliation a poor job evaluation. She fought back with her own memo and said she feels as if the department is trying to force her out and damage her career.

The good news, she says, is her department has a new chief, Gary L. Tittle, and he put an end to the onerous practice.

She says, “They’re definitely not tracking these numbers any longer. So people have been thanking me for doing this. That has been a positive change with the new chief, which I appreciate.”

Ed Wallace

Ed Wallace

For me, a treat of the week is the Saturday morning radio show on KLIF-AM (570) Wheels With Ed Wallace, which has been on the air since 1993.

Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s only a show about cars. Cars may be at the center of the wheel but all the spokes go off in different directions, whether it be toll roads, insurance scams, all matters related to energy or other topics in the news.

“I’m not that smart,” he likes to say. “I’m just a master of the obvious.”

He does weekly feature stories to music about historical figures that can be mesmerizing. That’s called “The Backside of American History.” He presents “Second Hand News,” which is a look at stories the news media missed. And he tells wonderful stories about rock ’n’ roll history.

It was from Wallace’s show that I learned about the biggest data breach in Texas history — stolen information about 27 million Texas driver’s license holders. The state, at first, denied that it happened, but Wallace reported that the breach involved a third-party data broker.

With that being said (one of Wallace’s favorite expressions), Wallace does take calls about cars, buying, selling and repairing.

For a long time, I listened to the 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. five-hour show on my car radio or with a staticky transistor radio. Now I just tell my smart device “play Wheels With Ed Wallace on 570 AM KLIF” and voila.

Carol Biedrzycki

Carol Biedrzycki

If you think your electric bill is high now, it would probably be higher if Carol Biedrzycki (pronounced Ba-jit-sky) hadn’t spent the last 30 years battling state regulators and the powerful energy industry.

At times, it felt like the Travis County resident was the only one standing up for consumers on electricity matters. The former Public Utility Commission staffer was a prophet. She railed against deregulation before it happened and isn’t surprised at its failure.

Four years ago, she retired from her position as head of TexasROSE — Texas Ratepayers Organization to Save Energy. But the group couldn’t make it without her and shut down.

However, after the horrible February freezeout, she decided to come out of retirement.

“I was just angry,” she said. “My whole personal life was a mess. I had property damage. I had extreme physical discomfort during the storm. I just felt like I needed to make some noise.”

She made noise at the Legislature and with regulators. No matter what happened, she didn’t back down. She attributes growing up with three brothers as the source of her strength.

She fought for low-income residents and people medically dependent on electricity, but she also fought for everyone who pays an electric bill.

She said there are too many electricity plans with gotcha fine print. Too much work is required to find an electricity company that treats its customers fairly.

Brenda Rizos

Brenda Rizos

For almost 20 years Brenda Rizos focused her attention on the leadership of Lovejoy ISD, which includes Lucas, Allen and part of Fairview. She directed her watchdogging at Superintendent Ted Moore.

For that, she became the target.

Moore and the school board came after her. “I felt like I was living in the twilight zone,” she said.

At a state association meeting of superintendents and school board members, Moore gave a slide show about how to deal with critics. He called them “cyber terrorists” and showed a slide of the famous knife-attack shower scene from the movie Psycho.

“Do critics have a point?” he asked. “Even a broken clock is right twice a day,” he answered.

She didn’t back down. The Lucas resident heard about the slides, complained and Moore never gave the presentation again.

Moore was eventually fired. The school board’s statement only said his removal stemmed from “alleged misconduct” with “adult victims.”

Rizos won a Texas Ethics Commission ruling against Moore. The commission found he had used taxpayer resources to win a bond election. Moore had to pay $1,500 of his own money to settle the matter.

Fighting a school district bureaucracy is like trying to climb a mountain in a snowstorm. There are lots of reasons to quit. Rizos didn’t.

“I feel like the world is finally starting to be sane again,” she said. “What’s bad is bad. What’s good is good.”

Karen Blumenthal

Karen Blumenthal

This is a posthumous award because Karen Blumenthal, our inductee, died last year of a heart attack. She was 61.

In Dallas, a city that constantly struggles to fix its problems, the journalist/author showed how to get things done.

From her perch as volunteer on the city’s library advisory board and also head of the Friends of the Dallas Public Library, she spearheaded the replacement of the city’s oldest library branch, Forest Green.

Her spears were humor, passion and her famous homemade cookies. The word “no” meant nothing to her. When a council member declined to see her, she showed up anyway with her cookies. She worked for a yes.

She wrote a Dr. Seuss-like poem which she presented to City Council, made charts showing Dallas’ poor spending on libraries and organized a bus tour of all branches.

The auditorium in the new $9.4 million library, which opened this year, is named after her. So is the children’s section.

Dallas has a rule that it doesn’t name library branches after people.

In this case, the city should have made an exception.

I’m proud of these inductees for what they accomplished. The Watchdog hopes you are, too.

1,000 new people arrive in Texas every day. Half are newborns.

SAN ANTONIO — Every three minutes, a child is born somewhere in Texas.

At one hospital in North Texas, 107 babies were delivered over 96 hours this summer, shattering local records. At a hospital in San Antonio, more than 1,200 babies have been born this year, up nearly 30% since 2018.

Across one of the nation’s fastest-growing states, an average 1,000 new Texans arrive every day. Half of them are newborns.

“Our population is going up. So just with that, I would expect our birthrates to increase,” said Shad Deering, a department chair with the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. “We will become very busy.”

We spent a day last month with Deering and his staff and witnessed the arrival of several new residents to the Lone Star State.

Stefanie Garcia-DeLeon was eager to hear her newborn when the machines she was connected to signaled something was not right. More than a dozen men and women in scrubs rushed into her room.

But nine minutes later, all worry evaporated. Garcia-DeLeon pushed, and a little girl let out a hearty cry. The room erupted in cheers and laughter.

Ten minutes later, Serafina’s little eyes scanned her mother’s face and all of the hospital equipment around her. “She’s so small, but already she has a big curiosity,” Garcia-DeLeon said.

Across the state, a baby boom has been fueled by newcomers from states like California and New York, attracted by a lower cost of living, less crowded schools and cheaper taxes. Many of them are starting their own families in the process, experts said.

“We have a higher proportion of population in the reproductive years,” said Lloyd Potter, a state demographer and professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Between 2010 and 2020, the state’s population grew by 4 million — or the entire population of neighboring Oklahoma. Babies made up the largest number of new arrivals to Texas (about 48%), with migrants from other states (31%) and countries (21%) rounding out the rest.

And hospitals are trying to keep up.

“It has not slowed down,” said Michelle Stemley, vice president of patient care at Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center in Fort Worth, which broke its four-day delivery record this summer.

The surge in births comes amid a declining birthrate nationwide. Couples have waited longer to have children, a trend that continued during the coronavirus pandemic and an uncertain economy, Potter said.

But a spike in sales of pregnancy tests — a 13% increase since June of last year — may signal that a so-called millennial baby boom may be on the horizon, according to Nielsen’s data and Bank of America’s research.

Many longtime Texans are contributing to the uptick in tiny new residents.

Amanda Ramos, 32, a mother to two children, was not expecting to have a third. Ramos was using an intrauterine device as birth control when doctors told her she had an ectopic pregnancy, which occurs when the fertilized egg implants in tissue outside of the uterus.

After surgery to remove the left tube of her uterus, she learned she was still pregnant. Eventually, at Children’s Hospital, Mateo Chris was born via cesarean section after doctors discovered he was pointing in the wrong direction and could not be born naturally.

Ramos held tightly to her baby, whose first name means “God’s blessing.”

“He’s a miracle baby,” she said. “My miracle baby.”

Oliver Noteware, 34, and Kathryn Adkins, 33, grew up in Houston and attended the same elementary school. They fell out of touch for two decades but reconnected in New York, where they ran into each other on the streets of downtown Manhattan.

As the coronavirus tore through the city, they decided, like thousands of others, to try their luck elsewhere. They settled in San Antonio, where Southern manners have made it easier for them to meet new people. “We actually know our neighbors here,” she said.

On this day, Esmé Tallulah, all 7 pounds, 7 ounces, joined them.

Noteware, who was also celebrating his birthday, held his sleeping daughter on his exposed chest to bond with her as an exhausted Adkins watched with tenderness from her hospital bed. After 12 hours of labor, she was more than elated. “I feel a lot more connection to her now than I did when she was in the womb,” she said.

Both Noteware and Adkins said they were ready for the challenges of parenthood. When their baby let out a faint cry after a nurse pierced her tiny foot for a blood sample, the new mother did not miss a beat. “You are going to experience a lot more pain in life,” Adkins said with a bittersweet smile.