With Family Justice Center, county implements comprehensive approach against domestic violence
on December 28, 2009
On the first Friday of every month, people in Department 4 of the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse testify about bruised faces and broken bones. Judges in the downtown Oakland courthouse often hear stories of violence, but these are different. In each case, the victim and aggressor were in a romantic relationship.
“Did you choke your girlfriend and force her out of the car?” Judge Gloria Rhynes asked a short, stocky man in his twenties on last month’s first Friday.
“She told you about a miscarriage?”
“But the baby wasn’t yours?”
“So you waited for her outside her car by her work?” Rhynes asked. “Did you choke her then? Did you follow her?”
“No. If I did, why didn’t she call the police?” the man asked with some agitation. “If this were happening to me, I would tell someone. All these allegations are fabrications. Any logical person would call the police.”
Rhynes paused, and started explaining something she had explained many times before. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case with domestic violence victims,” she said to the man. “Victims don’t act as we would predict them to because of the nature of the relationship.”
The bailiff would go on to call more than 100 names during this domestic violence court session. The room was full of men and women who reflected the diversity of the Bay Area—white and black, Asian and Hispanic, gay and lesbian. Several people were dressed in suits and ties and could afford their own attorneys. Others wore frayed tracksuits or tattered jeans and represented themselves.
Sign language interpreters translated the judge’s instructions to an estranged husband and wife, both deaf. Alameda County sheriffs in gray uniforms carried revolvers and reminded members of the audience to be quiet, turn off cell phones and refrain from chewing gum. Three babies squealed at different intervals. An older gentleman walked in with the help of a cane.
Some former couples seemed amiable, like two women who had a relationship that had included a broken nose and neck bruises, but now were mostly worried about who will have custody of their dog. But in another instance, one woman kept jumping up and down before her name was called, convinced that a man who was not in the courtroom was going to come and get her. (“Even if he does come in here, he won’t touch you. I’ll make sure of that,” the bailiff assured her.) Another woman talked about how her husband tried to run her off the road when she was driving. Her two children were with her.
A version of these stories—sometimes less violent, sometimes more—plays out in Oakland and other parts of Alameda County several times a day. In 2008, Alameda County law enforcement responded to almost 7,000 domestic disturbance calls, with the Oakland Police Department handling the vast majority of these cases. That averages out to a distress call somewhere in the county every 90 minutes. More than 2,500 of these calls led to criminal cases. Countless other incidents go unreported, because victims feel some combination of fear, shame and confusion about their situation. With domestic violence cases, it’s rarely easy to ask and never easy to tell when someone needs help.
That’s why Alameda County established a Family Justice Center (FJC) in 2005 to help victims of domestic violence navigate the many legal and social services available to them, and ultimately, to help represent them here in court. Two of the center’s lawyers were at the court that day in November, consoling one well-dressed woman in the front row before she gave testimony in her case against her former husband.
“We’re going to help you,” the attorneys assured the woman, as they led her toward the front row of the court gallery and waited with her until her case was called.
The Family Justice Center’s primary innovation has been bringing police, the District Attorney’s Office, and social service agencies all to an office on Oakland’s 27th Street between Broadway and Telegraph Avenue. This centralization of resources is meant to allow people who are enduring one of the most difficult experiences of their lives to move more smoothly through the daunting process of finding shelters, counseling and legal aid. “Putting everything in one place means you’re not telling a victim, ‘You need to go across town to get a restraining order,’” said Family Justice Center site manager Harold Boscovich, a former Oakland police officer. “You’re not telling a victim, ‘You need to go back across town to talk to police, you need to go back across town to the witness center.’”
When it was founded, the Alameda Family Justice Center was only the second such center in the nation, but within the last few years other counties have begun to copy this model. Funded by the District Attorney’s office, public grants and private gifts, the FJC has helped county attorneys prepare better domestic violence cases for trial. It has also eased social service providers’ efforts to help victims with psychological counseling, job training and onsite childcare. More than 7,000 people—a majority of whom are women with children—have used the center this year.
“Over the last year or so, we have seen an increase in clients’ repeated visits for varying services,” said Nadia Davis-Lockyer, the center’s executive director. “Not due to new incidents of family violence, but due to their realizing that additional services beyond immediate crisis intervention can help them achieve a happy and healthy home. Wherever you’re at, however you want to proceed, when you walk in our door, we can help you.
Law enforcement officials and the criminal justice system have only recently begun to understand how to confront violence in intimate relationships—which encompasses crimes ranging from felony sexual assault to misdemeanor battery. High-profile assault cases involving celebrities like Rihanna and Chris Brown briefly shine a light on this phenomenon, but the crime can be overlooked when people don’t come forth because of fear and shame. Family and friends of people affected often either aren’t aware of the problem or don’t know how to handle sensitive information when it comes to light.
“In the old days, there wasn’t even a crime called ‘domestic violence’,” said Nancy O’Malley, Alameda County’s district attorney who helped write some of California’s domestic violence laws in the 1990s. “It was recognized as a family matter.“
Police used to be trained to “walk the perpetrator around the block to give a little separation, time to cool down,” she continued. “But we’ve been challenging our legislators, challenging law enforcement, challenging prosecutors, challenging social services to start recognizing domestic violence as a real crime.”
Boscovich, who was an Oakland police officer during the 1970’s, pointed out that police officers had few options before it was possible to refer victims to places like the Family Justice Center. “Back then, we often had to say ‘Sorry I can’t do anything else for you.’ We’d keep going back, but the seventh or eighth time, sometimes a guy went too far and killed,” he said.
The law has now begun to catch up with the reality that domestic violence is the most common form of violent crime in the country. In 2005, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 467,000 people in the United States were victimized by an intimate partner. From 2001 to 2005, 67 domestic violence incidents in Alameda County led to fatalities, including 26 shootings and 18 stabbings.
In addition, more than 3,000 restraining orders are issued in Alameda County every year, meaning that, on average, nine times every day the county determines someone can no longer be trusted to be in the same space as his or her former spouse or partner. Randy White, the Oakland police officer who serves as a subject matter expert for the domestic violence unit at the Family Justice Center, said these numbers translate into victims coming into the center on a regular basis. “Almost every few hours, every day, someone comes in here requesting services because they were a victim of a rape or domestic violence,” he said.
Just as the law has come to recognize the prevalence of domestic violence, so have government-funded social service agencies. The full-service Family Justice Center is the result of a decades-long cultural shift and a testament to the way services for people affected by domestic violence have moved out of the shadows. “In the 1970s, the domestic violence movement started in garages and people’s homes,” said Raeanne Passantino, the center’s assistant director. “This new movement makes a huge difference for clients, who can get many services at one time.”
But it’s still a crime that often leaves people feeling helpless or isolated, and reluctant to seek help.
“I think a lot of people who are caught in relationships with domestic violence stay in them because the feel they are without options or hope,” said Casey Bates, Alameda County’s assistant district attorney in charge of supervising domestic violence prosecutions. “Maybe some of those views can be changed if they talk to people who say, ‘This is what we can do for you. You don’t have to feel trapped in this house. We can protect you. We can put you in a safe place while you get established.’”
Brenda Hatcher-Santiago, the site’s “navigator” or intake coordinator, is the person who conducts the first interview when victims call or visit. She said that even though domestic violence victims come from all walks of life, many of them face similar obstacles when seeking out help. “Sometimes our clients know people from the neighborhood, they know people from church. But they don’t have close friends,” she said. “They don’t feel like they can go to just anyone and say, ‘My husband is doing this to me, can I stay at your house?’ That’s just not an option.”
In trying to find a way to overcome the silence and confusion domestic violence can cause, the Family Justice Center has helped law enforcement and criminal justice officials reach out to victims in the county in more human terms.
“It allows us to tell victims: ‘We care about you, criminal justice is secondary. Social service is secondary,’” District Attorney O’Malley said. “We can say, ‘We care about you and we care about how you’re doing and how your kids are doing.’ That’s our primary motivation for all this.”
While the Family Justice Center was created to serve some of the functions of a police station and a district attorney’s office, it’s structured not to look like either. In the front lobby, for instance, there’s no bulletproof glass separating staff from clients.
Throughout the building, the color scheme follows a palette of blues and whites, designed to make people feel welcome. In December, winter holiday decorations deck the halls, with stockings, red tinsel and white snowflakes brightening up the lobby. Posters in English and Spanish highlight domestic violence services. A table of brochures offers information—sometimes in Mandarin or Korean—about topics ranging from self-defense to legal aid. The center tries to provide as many services as its can to clients, and always provides them without charge.
“Services are free to everyone,” said Cherri Allison, director of the Family Violence Law Center. “Even if you or your spouse have a good job, you might not have access to the money you make. In one case, we had someone who couldn’t take $40 out of the bank. The abuser monitored everything.”
A “Curious George” cartoon plays on the lobby television, the first of many signs of the center’s kid-friendly nature. This child-conscious approach is essential, because close to two-thirds of the center’s clients have children. Upstairs, the supervised “KidZone” play area allows children who witness traumatic events at home to escape into diversions—board games like Candy Land, dollhouses and books featuring Clifford the Big Red Dog and Heloise. Mothers can see their children through a Plexiglas partition, which allows them to speak privately with a counselor but also know their children are safe.
“KidZone is so important,” Passantino said. “If these women don’t have child care, they won’t come. It’s onsite, kids stay as long as a parent needs. Every kid is offered a snack and a new toy, regardless of how many times they have come in. It’s a place where kids can be kids.”
But even in this more welcoming atmosphere, staff takes security seriously. Tinted windows allow for privacy from the outside, and an Alameda County sheriff with a service revolver is stationed on the first floor. No one is allowed beyond the reception area without an escort and a visitor’s badge, and batterers are not allowed on the premises under any circumstances.
“You don’t want people walking around here like it’s the supermarket,” Hatcher-Santiago said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time when someone comes in here, it’s on the downlow. If we let someone come in here, they’re either a client, they work here, or they’re visiting someone who works here.”
The center’s staff does its best to anticipate the logistical challenges that seeking help can present. The abusive husband or boyfriend sometimes controls the woman’s bank account. One case worker at the center said Spanish-speaking immigrants threaten immigrant wives or girlfriends from Mexico or El Salvador with deportation if they tell anyone about domestic abuse. Some boyfriends or spouses monitor a woman’s cell phone and keep a tight rein on her movements.
To deal with some of these challenges, the center has BART, taxi and bus vouchers, giving clients transportation to the site no matter what their circumstances are. A mobile response team reacts to calls people make to a countywide 24-hour hotline. The center also has women’s and children’s clothing and toiletries on hand to be able to provide for people who leave a dangerous situation in a hurry.
“We’ll send someone to a hotel for one or two days and then we’ll help find a shelter,” said Allison. “At the hotel, we’ll drop off food vouchers, Pampers, formula. These women are leaving with nothing, so these kinds of things can be very valuable.”
Just as important, the center’s staff takes care to account for a client’s emotional state. Hatcher-Santiago said she has clients do one-on-one interviews with her first, which is meant to prevent them from reliving trauma by having to tell the same story multiple times. She can assess the situation, determine how the client wants to proceed and then quickly refer her to the appropriate personnel on site.
Hatcher-Santiago also said the center is careful not to impose a solution or course of action on a client. The staff works to address what the center’s clients view as their most pressing needs. “Our clients come in here with a huge problem in their lives and you have to respect their wishes and what it is they want to do,” she said. “They may have one main concern—maybe it’s to put their children in counseling. So we put that at #1 because that’s what they want to do first. They’ve been victimized so long that just by giving them control over what we’re going to do, you empower them.”
Giving domestic violence victims more control over their immediate priorities has a variety of benefits. Many of the center’s staffers say that having so many social services all in once place is not only helping clients get the services they need, but also helping the county prosecute their legal cases. “Victims are more willing to work with us on cases, we’ve had a higher rate of convictions, and this type of facility is able to better provide a full range of services,” said Bates, the assistant district attorney in charge of domestic violence prosecutions.
The proximity of Oakland police officers and country attorneys at the Family Justice Center—literally across the hall from each other—also means they can brief each other when they meet up at the water cooler. Each agency’s investigative needs are different—police often have to work quickly, based on the probable cause that a crime has occurred or is about to, while the DA’s office needs to establish cases beyond a reasonable doubt in the minds of twelve jurors. But the two agencies still have plenty of room for cooperation.
“Having the DA and police department right across from each other is crucial,” police officer Randy White said. “The DA will say ‘Don’t forget to do this. Or ‘Did you properly Mirandize the person?’ The quality of investigations is getting better and better resulting in more cases being charged. This results in a higher conviction rate.”
“I can hear them, they can hear me,” Bates agreed. “I can tell them ‘I need pictures,’ or I need this.’ They can ask me, ‘I have this case, what do I need to get it over the hurdle of beyond a reasonable doubt?’ There’s a lot more coordination to make these cases solid.”
Bates also said the presence of a social service agency like the Family Violence Law Center has also meant the DA’s office can give survivors of domestic violence other options when their cases don’t meet the burden of proof for criminal charges. “I can say to a victim: ‘Let me put you in touch with the Family Violence Law Center. You can speak to an attorney there and get a civil restraining order,’” he said. “I find it’s extremely satisfying to provide good service to people who’ve been victimized.”
The model has worked well enough that other counties are following suit. Over the last few years, Family Justice Centers have started up in San Jose, Fresno, and other cities around the country. Officials from several California counties, including Contra Costa and Solano, have visited Alameda County’s center site in recent months with an eye toward creating their own centers. “It’s a model that is being reproduced all over,” Bates said.
Yet plenty of challenges remain. In a place as diverse as Alameda County, for instance, the multiplicity of languages and cultures can make it difficult for people to seek help outside their own communities. Staff members including Hatcher-Santiago speak Spanish, which helps bridge the gap with a significant number of domestic violence survivors, some of whom believe they shouldn’t seek help because of fears of deportation. (The center does not turn away clients because of their immigration status or attempt to deport anyone.)
However, there are other language barriers: the need for confidentiality issues keeps the center from relying on volunteers to translate for clients from other communities, including speakers of Farsi, Hindi and Korean. This often means calling the Alameda County language line, where staff and domestic violence survivors can put on the speakerphone and communicate through an interpreter.
Having speakers of more languages available in person at the center has made a difference in the past. According to Family Violence Center director Cherri Allison, her legal services team experienced a significant spike in cases from the Chinese-American community when they had a staff member who spoke Cantonese. She said it showed her the importance of being able to provide culturally competent services. “People from that community felt safe to call,” she said. “Each community has its own set of issues around domestic violence. People don’t feel comfortable going outside their community, no matter how compassionate someone is. Being able to go to someone who speaks like you and looks like you is huge.”
Even when staff can match people with the right resources, the demands of constantly working with a population under threat can take an emotional toll. Protocol sometimes requires staff to decide which clients to call first based on who is most likely to be killed. Allison said she encountered a caseworker crying one day because the list had gotten out of control. “The woman at the bottom of the list had been stabbed in the face several times. That’s how bad things were,” she said.
Staff members also have to overcome challenges regarding the public’s misperceptions of domestic violence. According to several Family Justice Center staff members, the most common misunderstanding is that a person encountering a genuinely threatening situation will know to leave immediately—but that’s not always the case. “When I do domestic violence workshops, I ask if anyone has ever been in a bad relationship before that they knew they should leave. Almost everyone raises their hands,” Passantino said. “Then I tell them to imagine adding the fear and confusion of violence into the situation. It’s not as easy. It’s always important to understand that leaving is a process.”
The Family Justice Center continues to expand its services. In 2010, the staff plans to offer new counseling sessions and on-site medical services to let victims follow up with a physician in cases that require medical evidence. Now that counties like Alameda have done more to focus attention and resources on domestic violence, more people are finding the help they need.
“In the past, there was really nowhere to go,” Hatcher-Santiago said. “People wanted to get out, but what could they do? There were shelters, but nothing like the Family Justice Center. It’s helped people to understand that there’s a place they can reach out to rather than feeling like there’s nowhere they can turn.”
The Alameda County Family Justice Center is located at 470 27th Street in Oakland. Call (510) 267-8800 for more information.
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