Maria Rodgers remembers the courage it took to call 911 the first time.
She also remembers the crushing disappointment when the officer who responded to her report of her husband's abuse deemed the situation a "family matter" and made no arrest. In subsequent calls during her 25-year marriage, Rogers' husband was arrested only once, she said.
“It’s very hard to break the cycle,” Rodgers says now. “But I made up my mind I was going to be heard. I wasn’t going to give up." In May 2012, she walked into the Orange County Family Justice Center in Anaheim, not sure of what to expect.
She obtained a restraining order on the spot without ever leaving the premises – no calls to lawyers, no trip to the courthouse. She soon enrolled in empowerment classes at the center and eventually become a part-time victims' advocate there.
These days, Rodgers, an immigrant from Mexico, is a welcome emissary from the center to its largely Latino client base.
Founded in 2007, the center is one of a kind in Orange County and embodies a growing national trend towards a more comprehensive response to domestic violence. The center also serves victims of child abuse, sexual assault and elder abuse.
The center brings together numerous services under one roof: police, city and county prosecutors; social services such as CalWORKS; and several local nonprofits. Together the various groups and agencies offer access to emergency shelters, counseling, legal services and training in non-violence, entrepreneurship and empowerment.
The idea is to keep victims from having to go to several different locations for the services they require. This is crucial for low-income victims who often don’t get the help they need because they don't have a car and can't access resources and assistance.
“Victims used to have to go here and there,” said Anaheim Police Chief Raul Quezada. “Now we have the ability to go to a one-stop shop.”
Among the center's innovations is the assignment of victims to a single investigator and prosecutor who see the case through until the end. In the past, a victim might see her case change hands several times and end up having to tell her story over and over again.
Working alongside counselors at the center sensitizes police to the predicament of the families they are serving, said Lt. James Kazakos, the center’s director. Conversely, working in close proximity to police also helps victim advocates see why detectives get frustrated when victims put the brakes on an investigation by recanting their statement, which is not uncommon in domestic violence cases.
“It can be very discouraging to police when they put in a lot of legwork and the victims says ‘never mind’… Now I understand the police perspective,” said Elia Renteria, a police services representative and victim advocate at the center.
The Family Justice Movement
The Orange County center was the second facility of its kind developed in the United States, with the first being the San Diego Family Justice Center founded by former San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn.
A year after Gwinn formed the San Diego center in 2002, the Bush Administration offered to fund more centers based on San Diego model. Some 400 jurisdictions applied for 15 pilot projects, and now there are 90 centers operating nationwide, with another 100 in development, according to Gwinn.
Some centers are spearheaded by a police agency, as in San Diego and Anaheim. Others are led by shelters, community organizations, and in one case even a university. Funding sometimes comes from the federal government but more often from local government and philanthropy, Gwinn said.
The trend to get service providers communicating better with one another was already underway when Gwinn started the San Diego center, but his vision was to go further and put everyone in the same building working alongside one another.
Now Gwinn is ready to take the next step. “Family justice centers are currently in the collaborating phase: how to live together, how to make victims services more accessible… My goal is integration, not simply collaboration.”
A Haven for Immigrant Clients
A 2013 study of family justice centers in California, including the Anaheim site, suggested they are effective in helping undocumented victims overcome fear of deportation and seek help, and educating them on their rights under the law to seek legal residency by cooperating with police.
“Many had been told by abusers they could never become citizens, and [at family justice centers] they got the legal and emotional support to find out how they could empower themselves and become citizens,” said senior research associate Carrie Petrucci of EMT Associates.
The empowerment approach is benefiting public safety. According to the study, conviction rate for cases in four family justice centers was 68 percent compared to 50 percent for cases developed under traditional methods.
And, Petrucci said, “Anaheim was a leader in all of their data. They had a really strong system.”
The Anaheim-based center may be the reason for that city’s far lower number and rate of domestic violence calls to the police compared to those of neighboring Santa Ana, Gwinn said.
Santa Ana police received more than twice as many domestic abuse calls in 2013 as Anaheim, despite Anaheim being the slightly larger city. However, the disparity between the two cities was extensive even before the Anaheim center was built.
Still, Kazakos believes that the center’s coordinated and welcoming approach has led to word-of-mouth endorsement that encourages more people to seek assistance, helping to end the cycle of abuse.
“How we respond makes a difference,” Kazakos said.
Gwinn agreed, saying, “More effective intervention does reduce domestic violence calls.”
At the center's Christmas party in December, Chief Quezada chatted with staff, volunteers and kids. He said that by serving victims in a compassionate and comprehensive way, the center keeps them from getting lost in the system and feeling victimized all over again.
“This is a place for women to stand united, knowing there’s help out there,” Quezada said.
Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the University of California, Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org