CHICAGO LAWN — Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined dozens of city officials, domestic violence activists and law enforcement officers to memorialize Brenda Sexton, a Chicago Police officer who was beaten to death by her boyfriend in 2000.
Alongside Sexton's five children, Emanuel dedicated the Brenda Sexton Memorial Garden behind a domestic violence shelter on the Southwest Side that's set to open in February.
Operated by WINGS, a group that arranges safe houses for abused women and children across Cook County, the shelter will include 40 temporary beds and five apartments for families in need of long-term support.
"We're reminded of our responsibility to that girlfriend, that mother, that aunt, that she has a safe place to go with her family," Emanuel said at the event. "They need to know that there's support, there's affection, and there's an alternative to violence out there."
The shelter will expand the city's capacity to house battered families by about 35 percent, according to WINGS CEO Rebecca Daar, drawing down a long waiting list for a sorely needed free resource.
"A lot of times women will just go to their mother's house or a friend's house, but in that case the abuser may be able to find her," Daar said. "We provide a safe haven where violence can't find them, and where we can counsel them on what their next steps are."
The WINGS Metro center will be the first new domestic violence center to open in Chicago in 10 years, Daar said. She said the group, whose name is an acronym for "Women In Need Getting Stronger," secured funding for the project after Emanuel diverted $1.8 million in city winnings to it from a 2013 lawsuit.
Since the beginning of his term, Daar added, Emanuel has been doing "incredible work" to "help break the cycle of domestic violence."
Since taking office in 2011 the mayor created a "domestic violence prevention task force" and introduced domestic violence training programs at two police districts, according to a press release from the mayor's office. During the event, Emanuel said, he will "replicate that [training] model across the city."
Emanuel's interest in the issue stretches back to 1994, when he worked with then-Sen. Joe Biden to sponsor the federal Violence Against Women Act.
Before Emanuel spoke at Thursday's event, Sexton's youngest child, 15-year-old Morgan Johnson, read a dedication to her late mother.
"I never knew my mother, but my family has told me that she was a strong and outspoken woman," said Johnson, who was 7 months old when Sexton was killed. "I know my mother would want this garden to be a place where women can find self worth ... where they can feel safe with their own thoughts and opinions."
After Johnson's speech, Emanuel teared up as he addressed the teenager.
"As a father of three, I know your mother would be proud of the woman you turned into," Emanuel said. "Just know that every day, you carry a little bit of her with you."
The shelter's location is kept a secret for the protection of its residents, but anyone experiencing violence at home can access help — and, if needed, shelter — by calling the city's domestic violence hotline at 877-863-6338.
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