August 24, 2022
Denise Peña’s life has always been characterized by resilience, perseverance and independence. And they still accompany her today in her new role as deputy director in charge of the Community Ministry of Justice.
Born in Brazil, Peña moved around a lot as a child, including Venezuela, Georgia, California and Florida. She lived in Brazil before coming to Oregon when her father got a job at Intel.
She grew up in the Beaverton area and attended Aloha High School. Her ability to speak three languages - English, Spanish and Portuguese – helped her connect with many people.
But being bicultural is sometimes complicated, Peña said.
“On the one hand I have variety, diversity, perspectives and experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. But on the other hand, sometimes you can feel like you never quite fit in one place.
“You have one leg in different worlds.”
Finding your place often meant taking care of yourself as a young person. Peña’s parents were divorced. She spent summers in Brazil with family members who lived a very different lifestyle from the people of Beaverton, Oregon.
She had one older sibling but managed to live alone for much of her life. And by the time she turned 18, she was more than ready to go. She went to school and then found a job at a Women’s shelter nearby.
“It was women and children fleeing domestic violence,” she said. “Families that were in the midst of crises and traumatizing situations — and that’s really how it started for me to be able to provide support at what might be their most volatile moment in life.”
Today – with 22 years of experience working with clients, their families, victims and survivors of crime and providing leadership in her field – Peña is Associate Director of the Department of Community Justice (DCJ) for Multnomah County. It is a role that combines her skills and track record of managing large and complex portfolios with a genuine heart and deep caring for the people she works with and serves.
After a six-month process and a nationwide search, she was promoted to assistant director.
“She was selected from a very competitive pool of candidates following a national search that has generated international interest,” said Erika Preuitt, director of the department, who announced the decision to staff in June.
“She brings unique qualities, strengths, skills and experience that will help lead DCJ to ongoing transformation and continued work on ‘Community Safety Through Positive Change’.”
Peña began her career while studying liberal arts at Portland State University. In college, she became an on-call worker at the nearby YWCA in downtown Portland, which at the time was serving as a women’s shelter.
She worked her way up to housing assistant and then to case manager for the YWCA. As a home assistant, she was sometimes the only person on site. She ran a 24-hour helpline and created transition plans for victims.
She later joined the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office to work as a victim advocate. Peña guided victims through the law enforcement process and connected them to resources in the community.
Her tenure provided a better perspective of victims’ and survivors’ experiences of the justice system and laid the foundation for much of her work in the Department of Community Justice.
“I heard a victim say, ‘Crime takes a moment, but justice takes forever,'” Peña recalled of her time as a lawyer. “I used that in my training to make it clear that it doesn’t stop at conviction.”
In 2004, Peña was hired as a probation and probation officer (PPO) with the Domestic Violence Division of Community Justice. Her team worked with attorneys to provide a range of resources for victims and survivors, including financial assistance, housing, restraining order assistance, safety planning and emotional support. The program aims to support offenders to transform their lives with the goal of ending the cycle of abuse through a targeted approach of domestic violence interventions, monitoring, sanctions and services.
“Actually, I wanted to work in the DV unit and continue to advocate for victims by working to change the behavior of the person dealing with justice,” she said.
Peña was assigned in 2013 to lead Multnomah County’s Victim Service Unit and expand services to victims and survivors. Her work within the unit led to the creation of a nationwide Association of Community Prison Victim Service Providers, a forum for sharing knowledge and expertise.
As the director of Victim and Survival Services, Peña also met Susan Walters, a survivor and friend who has witnessed the devastation of violence. In 2006, Walters wrestled the hammer away from the hitman her husband had sent to kill her. That highly acclaimed 14 minutes Fight ended in the death of Walters’ attacker.
Pena created safety plans with Walters and connected them to the National Crime Victims Law Institute, which also lobbied on their behalf.
“We were able to connect her to an attorney and help her navigate post-conviction,” Peña said.
While Walter’s fears of another attack lessened when her ex-husband died before he was due to be released from prison, the connection she formed with the people who cared for her and helped her through the process proved so vital.
“She [Peña] spent a lot of time providing emotional support as a community justice manager,” Walters said. “She coordinated my security planning and response. We had a plan,” she said.
“When I first went into their office to talk about these things, I thought that because I had killed my attacker, people would not take my security concerns seriously. But the first thing she said to me was, ‘I work for you.’ Not every victim gets the support that I was fortunate to have.”
“We ask a lot of victims at a time of trauma and then we say, ‘Hey, the process is complete, make sure you report to parole, make sure you do this and that, etc.’ And then it’s kind of forgotten,” Pena said.
“Other counties may not have the same resources, and it has been a remarkable gift,” Walters said.
Peña’s work has earned her two awards, including the Joe Kegans Award for Victim Services in Probation and Parole, an annual award presented by the American Probation and Parole Association.
But she gives credit to her team.
“I might win an award, but I don’t do it alone,” she said. “It reflects the work of my unit and my staff. It is the probation and probation officers and juvenile court counselors who also attend to victims’ needs. It is a reflection of the department taking this as an obligation and a priority. ”
Peña’s work with Victim and Survivor Services bonded her to both the Youth Services Department and the Adult Services Department and led to a natural transition as a leader. For more than three years she served as senior manager in the Adult Services Department, overseeing the Women and Family Services Department, the Domestic Violence Department, records, administration and other units.
There’s so much work that people don’t see, Peña said.
“Probation and probation officers for juvenile court counselors, correctional counselors, administrative staff, employment coordinators, community health specialists, program specialists and juvenile detention services specialists working in custody. There is a variety of positions and what we’ve been through during the pandemic everyone has had to navigate in different ways.”
As Deputy Director, Peña helps oversee three divisions of the department, including the Director’s Office, which includes the research and planning team, contracts, facilities, and anything that might affect the entire department.
“There is a lot of work to be done throughout the justice system,” she said. “DCJ’s priorities are always supporting community safety and positive change.”
Working with victims and survivors is close to her heart.
“This exposure, as it related to the victims’ issues and changing their practices, helped me as a proxy because I have existing relationships, but also because of the work and understanding their importance.”
Friends describe Peña as open, caring and sincere. She is not afraid to share her story with others and makes friends wherever she goes.
“Denise is a wonderful person with a heart full of love and the ability to help survivors find a sense of security and control in their lives,” Walters said.
Today, Peña lives in northeast Portland. Her two young children are now working adults who live nearby.
She spends a lot of time with her adopted 90 pound beautiful boxer named Barry. “He loves people,” Peña said. “He’s the craziest and best dog ever.”