Family Justice Center, Asheville, due to open in August 2016. Michael Gebelein / Carolina Public Press

ASHEVILLE — Buncombe County had eight domestic-violence homicides in 2013, second only to Guilford County’s 11 murders despite having only a fraction of the population.

That harrowing statistic led community leaders to overhaul the way domestic-violence and sexual-assault services are provided in Western North Carolina’s largest county. That overhaul will culminate with the opening of the Buncombe County Family Justice Center in August, with participating agencies transitioning into the new facility next month.

“We came together as a community in 2013,” said Julie Klipp Nicholson, a county employee who is the top administrator for the Family Justice Center.

“It was really a painful wakeup call for all of us. Though we know that homicides in domestic-violence cases are the tip of the iceberg, we also knew that number of homicides is an indicator that we need to do a better job protecting victims and holding offenders accountable.”

The Family Justice Center, located at 35 Woodfin Street in Asheville, will be home to numerous domestic-violence and sexual-assault service providers and law-enforcement officials, all with the goal of streamlining the process of victim services to get survivors access to the resources they need to move forward.

Before the Family Justice Center opens, accessing those resources can mean filling out 61 forms and talking to 21 different people in eight separate locations with sometimes as many as 30 referrals, according to April Burgess-Johnson, executive director of Helpmate, an Asheville-based domestic-violence agency and shelter. For a person who’s been traumatized, that was often a daunting task.

“It’s a lot less to navigate for a survivor,” she said. “That’s a major benefit, just removing all of those barriers.”

Many services under one roof

Another major advantage of the Family Justice Center model, according to the providers who will be working there, is that having all of those services in one place will keep survivors on track to break the cycle of violence and abuse.

Jim Barrett is executive director of Pisgah Legal Services, an Asheville nonprofit that specializes in providing legal counsel to low-income people. Domestic-violence survivors often leave abusive relationships temporarily several times before making a permanent separation, he told CPP.

“The Family Justice Center will be a one-stop place for services that gives the victim the sense and the actuality that they can recover and get away from the abuse,” Barrett said.

“There’s not some kind of mystery about where to go. It’s supposed to remove all those barriers at a time when nobody needs any extra barriers. We want to help someone leave earlier in the cycle of abuse. They’re less likely to be hurt, the trauma is likely to be less severe. Children are less likely to learn abusive behaviors. The person is less beat down, they have an easier time getting into another living situation. To me, that’s one of the big values. We can intervene earlier and more effectively.”

Buncombe County owns the Woodfin Street property that will house the Family Justice Center and is contributing funding and logistical support, but each partner nonprofit or governmental agency will operate independently, albeit collaboratively. The Asheville Police Department and Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office will both have officers onsite. The location is adjacent to the Buncombe County courthouse, designed to facilitate easy access to the court system.

In addition to Helpmate and Pisgah Legal Services, the FJC will be home to the Mountain Child Advocacy Center, which focuses on child abuse prevention and services, and Our VOICE, which serves victims of sexual assault. Survivors will have access to individual and group therapy, medical exams, legal advice and support services at the FJC.

“We’re changing the experience for survivors in our community and helping to build a safety net around them,” Klipp Nicholson said. “We’ve seen, as this project has been implemented, how our community conversation around domestic and sexual violence has changed. People are talking about this more, and when people talk about it, that’s preventive. When survivors know that there’s support and there’s hope, survivors feel more comfortable coming forward.”

Renovations at the Woodfin Street property are being funded by Buncombe County, which will make “relatively low” ongoing contributions once the FJC is open. The FJC has also been awarded funding from the county, the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The national model

The Buncombe County Family Justice Center is based on a model created by Alliance for Hope, a San Diego, Calif., organization that is focused on serving “victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse, child abuse, and/or human trafficking,” according to the group’s website. The Alamance County Family Justice Center in Burlington was the first in North Carolina, but the Guilford County Family Justice Center in Greensboro, which opened in June, is currently the largest.

Catherine Johnson, director of the Guilford County Family Justice Center, said the collaboration between agencies in Greensboro has been beneficial to both the partners and survivors. Johnson said the Guilford County FJC has served around 4,000 clients since it opened.

“The Family Justice Center is an example of how successful collaboration allows innovative things to happen,” she said. “Every partner agency’s capacity has increased without having to add staff. When someone is coming in and they get to the expert in whatever service they’re requesting, they can go straight to the next expert.”

In the domestic-violence prevention community, Family Justice Centers are viewed as a “best practice” model.

“I think that we will see many more Family Justice Centers grow in North Carolina,” Klipp Nicholson said.

The phone number for Helpmate’s crisis line is (828) 254-0516. The Our VOICE crisis line can be reached at (828) 255-7576.

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Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email or call 828-774-5290.

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