By Heather Tirado Gilligan
Before Patricia left her abusive husband nineteen years ago, she struggled for years with the abuse, her fears and her reluctance to press charges. Whenever she did speak to the police, it was difficult for her to explain why she did not want to pursue prosecution.
“It was hard for a police officer to understand, if you know this is a dangerous situation for you, why would you keep calling, and why, when we come out here, won’t you press charges?” she said, speaking about her experience only on the condition that her last name be withheld. Facing judgment is one of the biggest challenges in breaking away from violent relationships, Patricia said.
“I knew the person who battered me better than anyone,” Patricia said. “I knew that if I pressed charges, when he got out of jail, there would be more harm for me.”
Combating the stigma and deep fear that follows victims of abuse is the goal of the proposed Contra Costa County Family Justice Center. The agency is a public-private partnership spearheaded by Contra Costa County’s Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence Initiative. The Center will provide services to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and sexual trafficking under one roof, said Devorah Levine, executive director of Zero Tolerance.
Formal planning for the Contra Costa Family Justice Center began this year, Levine said. Working groups were created to unite the many county service providers and private non-profits, and a site to house the center was selected in Richmond. By the end of the year, Levine hopes that the Center will be ready to house representatives from key agencies across the county, including the police department, legal assistance, housing assistance and counseling assistance.
A Family Justice Center should increase prosecutions for domestic violence, said Bisa French, spokeswoman for the Richmond Police Department.
“When we work more closely with advocates and victims we get more cooperation,” French said. “Victims feel safer and are more willing to pursue prosecution.”
French is also assigned to the Family Services Unit, which responds to domestic violence calls. Family Services responds to between 25 and 35 cases of felony domestic violence per month, French said.
Increased demand amid decreasing resources
Richmond’s rates of violence against women are the highest in the county. The city accounts for only 10 percent of the county population, but 20 percent of forcible rapes and 21 percent of domestic violence incidents in the county occur in Richmond. Last year, 16 women died as a result of domestic violence in Contra Costa County.
Paradoxical as it sounds, Levine said county budget cuts are part of what prompted her to begin a center. Concentrating resources in one location is the best way to help more women, she said.
“Over time, it certainly saves this county and the community money, that we aren’t working at odds,” said Rhonda James, executive director of Community Violence Solutions, the non-profit that serves as Contra Costa County’s rape crisis center, and one of the organizations helping Zero Tolerance in its push to open the center. Without proper communication, service providers can duplicate efforts, James said.
The biggest obstacle that remains for the center is raising funds for rehabbing of the proposed site in Richmond, Levine said. She’ is fundraising and seeking volunteer labor to get the building ready for the agencies already in line to help. The work will cost an estimated $1.1 million.
Service providers are seeing huge increases in demand combined with funding cuts and decreased donations, said Michelle Davis, director of development for STAND Against Domestic Violence, Contra Costa County’s domestic violence prevention agency.
The number of unique calls to STAND’s crisis hotline increased by 85 percent this year, Davis said. Emergency food and clothing assistance has been needed by 39 percent of clients this year.
“I can’t tell you we’ve ever seen anything like this before,” Davis said of the combined budget cuts and increased demand. “This is really off the chart for us.”
Abused women usually require more than one service, Levine said, and are overwhelmed with fear and feelings of worthlessness when they begin the process of leaving their relationships. Then, the process of separating from an abusive spouse requires a complicated series of bureaucratic interactions, like securing restraining orders, beginning divorce proceedings, and drawing on the resources of social agencies to find emergency shelter.
“If we are all in one place, the odds of someone falling through the cracks is just smaller,” James said.
“The reason that there are difficulties between pieces of the system aren’t usually because people are small minded or evil,” James said. “It’s because we don’t know that when someone has to move from law enforcement to medical to social services to housing that there are these pieces that fall away.”
Patricia saw that fragmentation first-hand.
“Everything was pretty disconnected,” she said of seeking help in Contra Costa County. Much has changed since she was a victim, Patricia said, but assistance remains scattered. “A lot of services were available through STAND, but a lot I had to find out on my own. It took a few years to wrap up most of the services I needed.”Leticia Mendoza, a former victim of domestic violence who is now a peer counselor in the domestic violence program at Richmond’s Latina Center, said that she had no idea how to get help when she left her abusive relationship seven years ago.
“It was hard because I didn’t know anything here,” she said. “So I represented myself in court. I didn’t know any English at all…I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Creating a culture of safety
Violence occurs more frequently in poor areas generally, but the problem of domestic abuse cuts across socioeconomic lines, James said. Women from all ethnic groups, races and income brackets draw on public and private resources for victims of abuse.
Yet poor women, and women who don’t speak English, do have a harder time finding emergency services and protection, James said.Some women, like Mendoza, overcome legal and personal challenges and leave their abuser behind. Others don’t, said Miriam Wong, the executive director of the Latina Center.
Listen to Miriam Wong in her own voice.
A victim seeking assistance at an emergency room, police station or clinic is unlikely to make initial contact with a service provider specifically trained to help them, according Wong. Latinas who don’t speak English and weren’t born in the U.S. are especially vulnerable, because language and cultural barriers make it more difficult to get help.
Working closely together, desk by desk, will teach providers how to help all women, James said.
“It’s not just about the services, it’s about the culture that is created when you have larger systems…really looking into the eyes of victims,” James said. “Most people don’t present and say, I’m a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault. They say, I have a broken jaw. I’m hurting. I’m homeless.”
“It truly does take many minds—and many hearts—to pay attention to when a situation becomes very dangerous for a family,” Zero Tolerance’s Levine said.
Given the ever-rising need for help, Patricia said, the center cannot open soon enough. “To me,” she said, “it’s just amazing to think about all the possibilities.”
Listen to Patricia in her own words.