Family Justice Center makes a difference for domestic violence victims

by Mollie McKinley

Behind the podium within the Guilford County commissioner’s chambers, a paper chain of vibrant reds, yellows, and purples draped the wooden wall. Each link delicately hung from its counterpart, connecting 5,000 of them together as one chain. Groups of police officers, non-profit advocates, and individuals sporting purple ribbons on their suit lapels all gazed upon the chain and simultaneously wondered, “What is that?” They represent the desperate and suffering individuals and victims helped by the Guilford County Family Justice Center. All 5,000 connected by a single access point.

A “one-stop shop,” if you will. They represent people in need. Like Sarah. That’s not her real name. It’s been changed for her safety. It’s easy to understand why.

Sarah was eight months pregnant when her husband of six years beat her. Before 2015, Sarah’s neighbors would simply call the police after hearing the fight. When they arrived, the police would refer her to many places to receive the medical, emotional, and governmental help in which she so badly needed.

All day, Sarah would drag her two-yearold from building to building, sitting in cold, fluorescent waiting rooms for what seemed like hours. She would stand in endless lines. She would be vilified for not showing up to meetings. All the while, Sarah was in complete crisis.

Eventually, Sarah’s exhaustion would cause her to become another individual to drop the charges. Sarah then becomes a statistic in the growing numbers of domestic violence wreaking havoc in Guilford County.

But above all, Sarah was a victim. Not a number. And on June 15, 2015, the Guilford County Family Justice Center recognized that.

Now, Sarah and her child visit a place that has a quiet, home-like atmosphere. Her child has a playroom. Snacks and water are offered immediately upon arrival.

An advocate looks her in the eyes in a calm room and helps her obtain a restraining order. She meets with law enforcement and goes before a judge on a video screen, all while her child is getting quality support. In just half a day, Sarah spends her time in a place where all her needs are finally met.

Sound unbelievable? Unreasonable?

Not anymore.

Since their opening, the Center has been making a significant difference in the lives of victims, like Sarah.

Last Wednesday, the community of Greensboro came together to celebrate the Center’s major successes during its first year. However, the evening was more about collaborating, raising awareness, and moving forward with dedication.

Guilford County Commissioner Jeff Phillips, who is also the center’s board chair, called the center a “critical initiative.” He commended the center for their hard work and willingness to cooperate with a community that has been broken for so long.

In 2013, Guilford County led the state in the amount of domestic-violence related homicides, totaling 11.

According to the center’s business plan, the local impact of family violence, sexual assault, and elder abuse is immense. In 2013, an average of 5,451 reports of child abuse were made to child protective services. In 2012, 1,574 residents of the county filed a domestic violence protective order against an attacker. For the four-year period ending in December of 2013, 11,411 calls were made to the domestic violence/ sexual assault crisis line at Family Service of the Piedmont.

Phillips, in his passionate remarks at the celebration, was adamant about decreasing those daunting numbers, making the community safer for all.

“Together, we’re charting a new course,” says Phillips.

Catherine Johnson, the center’s director, has also made it a mission to provide the necessary resources to the residents of Guilford County. With the dedication of

Johnson and her staff of about 45, a new course has been indeed charted. With the opening of the center in 2015, the county has only suffered one domestic violence homicide since—but for the center, that was still one too many.

“The community recognized that something different needed to happen. Too many people were dying. It was really an epidemic of violence,” says Johnson.

Johnson believes the center’s success is due to its transformative approach that changes how systems respond to each family’s unique need, taking the focus away from the individual agency itself.

“We knew that there were a lot of hurting people and families who weren’t getting their needs met,” Johnson said. “There were really good services throughout the community, but those services were disconnected. By taking those core services all over Guilford County and bringing them under one roof, we really took the confusion away from the clients.”

The partner agencies providing on-site services to victims include Family Service of the Piedmont Adult Victim Advocacy, Greensboro Children’s Advocacy Center of Family Service of the Piedmont, Kellin Foundation’s Child Response Initiative, Department of Health and Human Services Adult Protective services, Department of Health and Human Services Child Protective Services, Children’s Law Center of Central North Carolina, Legal Aid of Greensboro, Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, Greensboro Police Department, Cone Health, and the District Attorney’s Office.

The Family Service of the Piedmont Adult Victim Advocacy offers an innovative way to electronically file for restraining orders so that victims do not need to leave the premises. Along with this approach, the center is able to reach the Clerk of Court and the District Court Judge both via video conferencing software in the center’s virtual courtroom. Having these partner agencies all within the same walls ensures that the center is meeting the needs of suffering victims as efficiently as possible.

Off-site steering committee members include the Guilford County Commissioners, Greensboro City Council, Corporation for Guardianship, Elon Elder Law Clinic, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and Piedmont Triad Regional Council Area Agency on Aging.

Together, these 17 agencies have not only committed to the center’s mission but they have also signed a Memorandum of Understanding in order to dedicate themselves to the center’s work. Since their opening, the center has significantly expanded their off-site partners from the original steering committee organizations to over 40.

All of these services provide safety planning, shelter placement, emergency protective orders, child and adult advocacy and support, criminal investigation, legal services and advocacy, medical care, emergency needs and support, employment and financial support, and emotional support and mental health services.

“That comprehensive approach to response is really what’s so significant,” says Johnson.

What is also significant is the worth of the services being provided for victims.

With an annual budget of $207,000, Guilford County covers the costs of Johnson and her two staff members as well as operating costs. Every other partner agency, however, is at no expense to the county. Fortunately, these resources were existing service providers who graciously relocated to the Center. This makes the Center even more sustainable, because at the cost of a little over $200,000, their clients are receiving $2.5 million worth of resources per year.

Running a Family Justice Center has its challenges, too. But by using the three ‘P’s’, Johnson’s staff is able to overcome.

“You have to have passion, you have to have persistency, and you have to be able to persevere,” says Johnson. “This is a movement, and no movement is about one person. You have shared success and shared struggle, which is the way it should be.”

At the center, the victims feel the safety they yearn for during such a critical moment in their lives. City Council member Marikay Abuzuaiter says that this is the key factor in a successful Family Justice Center.

“What you have are all the community partners located in one place where a victim can safely go,” says Abuzuaiter. “That’s the biggest thing—the safety aspect. A victim may not feel comfortable going into a public place, like the courthouse. When they come into the Family Justice Center, they feel safe and secure.”

Not only do the employees make the center a safe environment, but the planning that went into the Center also plays an important role.

“I know the police department and the deputies talked for months about the security measures that needed to be in order.”

Abuzuaiter has felt passionate about the city’s plan to open the Center because she too has had a close encounter with domestic violence.

“Sixty years ago, my mother was in a domestic violence situation. I was a baby, but my mother had to leave in the middle of the night with only the clothes on her back and us,” she says.

Because of this experience, the Center is a big victory in Abuzuaiter’s eyes. The collaboration efforts between the community and the Center have gone above and beyond.

“I’m so proud of the Family Justice Center. I’m so proud of the community partners that have come together. I’m so proud of the professional organizations that are in there. I really wish we didn’t need them—but we do,” she says. “The fact that everyone has come together to alleviate a horrible problem in our community shows how committed everyone is to the Center, including our community.”

Some people in that community are long-time survivors, like 57-year-old Brenda White. Instead of letting abuse defeat her, White decided to make a difference in the community, despite the brutal domestic violence attack afflicted on her when she was young.

“I was stabbed 10 times, and there was no place to go,” White says, somehow with a cheerful face. “When the Family Justice Center came, it created a one-stop shop for individuals.”

Her positive energy and outlook is precisely what led her to become a volunteer on the VOICES committee, the center’s outreach initiative. The committee was created so that survivors could share their stories in hopes of inspiring others experiencing similar situations.

“I always navigate [victims] [to the Center] because it is a safe place,” says White. “Had [the Center] been in place during my attack, it would have made all the difference in the world.”

Luckily, now it is in place, and victims are no longer just statistics. Johnson’s vision for the center is now becoming reality.

“I used to think every day that when the Center opens, thousands of lives are going to change, thousands of people are going to get what they need quicker and better,” says Johnson. “That was my mantra to survive. Who more should we support than the people who are hurting in the community?” Little did Johnson know then, that with the hard work of her team, they would help thousands of lives.

Five thousand, to be exact. Remember that paper chain? !