- Associated Press - Saturday, March 12, 2016

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) - With just weeks to go before The Center for Family Justice officially opens its doors, Debra Greenwood was in her office last month juggling preparations with a somber task - helping plan a vigil for the family of a Fairfield man who police say tried to kill his wife and children before he was shot to death by police on Feb. 16.

Already in what Greenwood called “a soft opening” for about a year, the centralized help center, the first-of-its kind in Connecticut for victims of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault, has been busy helping victims stay safe and start new lives. The Fairfield incident - and the flurry of calls into the center’s 24-hour hotline that followed it - was perhaps a preview of what is to come at the revamped facility.

“Between the tragedy going on and getting ready to cut the ribbon, it’s exciting and terrifying at the same time because what we’re seeing is the word is getting out,” Greenwood, president and CEO of the center, said during a recent interview in her office at the Fairfield Avenue center.

Though it is located in Bridgeport - the city with the highest rate of domestic violence in the state, according to anti-domestic violence experts - the need for the center’s consolidated services is expected to stretch far beyond the city’s borders, demonstrating that such violence cuts across all racial, class and economic lines.

Once construction and renovations are complete, the center is expected to serve more than three times the number of clients it already assists. Victims who go there will find under one roof everything they need to navigate their family violence or sexual assault case.

Police officers, prosecutors, civil lawyers, therapists and crisis counselors will be on hand regularly to offer free services ranging from medical and mental health care, child care, financial, legal and career advice, transportation and housing.

“We understand that we’ll probably triple the amount of people that will come here,” Greenwood said. “But that’s a good thing. After (the Fairfield) tragedy, it just affirms that people need to know where to go to get these types of services.”

Spouses and partners fleeing abusive relationships have sought help at the Fairfield Avenue building for two decades when it operated as the Center for Women and Families, one of a series of agencies set up across the state after the federal Violence Against Women Act went into law in 1994.

Then, five years ago, center officials began to wonder if it would be possible to provide all of the necessary services for victims in one centralized location. They looked to the San Diego Family Justice Center - the first family justice center in the country - as a model for their transformation.

Officials were impressed with the blessing the family justice center model received from the state Department of Justice. And they were heartened by center statistics that showed family justice centers resulted in reduced domestic homicide rates, increased prosecution of offenders, and less fear and anxiety for survivors and their children.

So a capital campaign was launched and raised $1.1 million for construction costs from private donors and foundations, Greenwood said. A second phase of the campaign raised $1,412,000 in state bond money, nonprofit grants and donations, she said.

The center is looking for an additional $480,000 to complete outside improvements to the parking lot, security fencing and for the construction of a bathroom that is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A “wellness room” where clients and staff can meditate and do yoga is being built at the center with money donated by the Fairfield-based Bigelow Tea company.

When the doors open in April, the Bridgeport center will join the more than 100 other centers in the United States and six other countries already in the network.

“We felt it was so important for us to roll up our sleeves and do this,” Greenwood said. “So here we are five years later, taking a deep breath and the communities have put their arms around us.”

According to the center’s records for fiscal-year 2015, the center’s 46 full- and part-time employees served 8,125 clients in Bridgeport, Monroe, Easton, Trumbull, Fairfield and Stratford with an annual operating budget of $2,750,000 funded with state and federal grants and private contributions.

Though the center primarily handles services for residents of those municipalities, anyone can contact the center for help. Those who live outside of those towns and cities are referred to agencies in areas more convenient to their home.

In recent years, victims’ agencies, police and the courts have brought better tools to the fight against domestic violence from more intense intervention programs and a variety of counseling services to court dockets and police units that specialize in domestic violence cases.

But for many victims, that still means having to repeat their tragic stories to multiple parties, from the police officer taking the initial statement to the social worker trying to assess a parent’s need for services.

The new center is expected to have police officers present who can take statements and then pass on the information to the individuals who are assisting the victim. Trumbull Police Chief Michael Lombardo said his department has already consulted with police officers who assist at a Family Justice Center in New York about the process.

“The more times they have to repeat what happened to them, the more likely they are to be further traumatized,” Lombardo said. “Our goal is not to victimize them any further.”

And it can be difficult logistically for victims who are unable to find transportation to and from police departments, courthouses and the various agencies involved with their domestic dispute, often with multiple children in tow.

Once at The Family Justice Center, a parent can get child care assistance while they are seeking mental health treatment, counseling and job assistance.

Since the soft opening about a year ago, Greenwood said the center has built up a network of private attorneys who are assisting victims free of charge with their cases in court so they do not have to handle often complex legal issues on their own.

Instead of victims giving up before going into court before a judge, they now have an attorney protecting their rights whether it is in regard to custodial and immigration services or financial support, she said.

“The impact has been dramatic,” Greenwood said. “The legal component is very important.”

The center is also planning to work with local law students on an “incubator” program that allows new lawyers to run a legal practice at the center where they can get experience and mentoring in exchange for a certain amount of pro bono work.

Greenwood said nationally and statewide, 30 percent of the criminal cases that go to court are related to domestic violence.

A collaborative effort and an open dialogue about domestic violence, Greenwood said, can help victims and advocates “get in front” of the issue they face.

“The more we talk about it, the better off our communities will be,” she said. “Still today, people don’t know that there are agencies like ours where they can get free and confidential resources. By opening up our doors to our communities, we realize that they will take advantage of some of these services so that we can get in front of it as a preventative tool versus something that happens and we don’t have control and it ends up as a homicide.”

Karen Jarmoc, the chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said while agencies across the state in recent years have been working to combine services in an effort to better assist clients, she said The Family Justice Center model is “la crème de la crème” of the providers of programs and support for domestic violence prevention. She said another nonprofit in Connecticut is looking into transforming their agency into a family justice center.

Until then, Jarmoc said she expects to follow the center’s progress and learn from their experiences.

“They’ve shown tremendous initiative,” Jarmoc said. “It just shows what can happen when various entities come together.”


Information from: Hartford Courant, https://www.courant.com

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