ROCKFORD (WREX) – Earlier this year the city of Rockford received a $450,000 federal grant to create a Family Justice Center. To understand what this could bring to Rockford, 13 WREX traveled to one of the leading centers in the country, the Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee, to learn more.
The Sojourner Family Peace Center is dedicated to finding survivors of domestic violence and their families a fresh, safe start in life.
“This concept is not rocket science, it’s intuitive,” says SFPC President & CEO Carmen Pitre. “The worst time in your life do you want things to be easier or harder for you?”
It’s a model that first popped up in San Diego, thanks in large part to former city attorney and now Alliance for Hope International President Casey Gwinn. He says since the center was put into place in the mid 1980s, the results were staggering.
“Homicides dropped 90% in the city of San Diego, domestic violence homicides.”
So what exactly is a Family Justice Center?
“Instead of having to go to six, seven, eight, or nine locations over time now we have one location where you can come and we put all these arms around you,” says Pitre.
At the Sojourner Center, those arms include agencies like the police department, school district, childcare, therapists, and legal services.
Monica Hidalgo fled to the United States from El Salvador to escape violence against Catholics. Shortly after that, her husband became physically and mentally abusive. Her decision to leave him wasn’t supported by her family.
“I found myself completely depressed, overwhelmed,” says Monica. “I didn’t know what to do or where to start. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have anything. I couldn’t work because I couldn’t leave my children.”
Which is why she says the Sojourner Center was vital in validating her choice and giving her the services she needed to take control of her life for her children.
“As soon as I came here I felt very safe and very calm,” says Monica. “It was life changing. I cannot even think of what my life would be without it.”
“The most important thing we do is say you’re not alone,” says Pitre. “I’m here to help, and I’m here to help you envision a different future for you, here to help you envision a different future for yourself and your family.”
It’s stories like these that have city leaders from Rockford learning from the Sojourner Center, and working to bring this practice to the city.
“You need a foundational group of people who will lead it forward, it sounds like in Rockford your Mayors Office is playing that role,” says Pitre.
“I’m 100% committed to believing this is the best thing for our community,” says Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara. “I’m 100% committed to believing that this is the best thing for survivors and children and families.”
“We will not close these doors once we open,” says Jen Cacciapaglia. “We cannot do that to the survivors and their families in this community there is too much at stake.”
Cacciapaglia heads up Rockford’s Mayor’s Office on Domestic Violence. She says the way services are spread out across the city, is dangerous.
“The exposure to these obstacles really puts you at a risk of staying in the situation you’re in which can lead to really fatal consequences as we’ve seen in our community so many times this year.”
Early next year, the city will begin working with the Alliance for Hope to figure out where the center can go, and what partners it can include in the early stages.
“What level of partnership is what the strategic planning will flesh out and we need to hear that from the community,” says Cacciapaglia.
“I’m thrilled with the progress,” says McNamara. “I’ll be up front and tell you I never would have thought campaigning saying I want an office on domestic violence that we’d be at this point already.”
So to the survivors of Domestic Violence in our community, the Mayor’s Office has a direct message for you.
“That there’s hope,” says Cacciapaglia. “That there’s hope. If they’re in the middle, beginning, just considering fleeing or getting out of there. We are working on building a community.”
The Mayor’s Office says the first site visits for the Family Justice Center will begin in February of 2019. From there, it’s shooting to have a center in the city roughly 18 months from that time. It also says it’s planning on having meetings with the community, to get input on what they would like to see out of this center.