Story By: Karen Florin 

Waterford — The Center for Safe Futures made its debut Thursday morning at an Italian restaurant on Boston Post Road, as about 100 people gathered to start planning a full-service family justice center for victims of domestic violence.

There’s no specific location for the center, yet, though it likely would be in New London with satellite offices elsewhere in the region, but there was an abundance of enthusiasm from those who serve and support victims of domestic violence.

Katherine Verano, chief executive officer of Safe Futures, could hardly contain her excitement as she introduced Casey Gwinn and Gael Strack, pioneers of the family justice center movement. They opened the country’s first Family Justice Center in San Diego and are co-founders of Alliance for Hope International, which has started centers around the world. Gwinn and Strack traveled across the country for the two-day strategic planning summit despite the threat of the coronavirus.

The summit was moved from Connecticut College to Filomena’s restaurant after the college announced it would be canceling lectures and events. Verano said some people had canceled, but that many of the agency’s community partners were in the room representing law enforcement, and the legal, medical, education, social service and religious communities.

“We believe strongly that you are ready,” said Strack as she looked out at the gathering. “It’s really nice to be in a community that gets it. We like to say, dream big, start small and move fast.”

Verano announced that Kenneth W. Edwards Jr., a retired police captain and court inspector who started the area’s first multi-agency domestic violence response team in the 1990s, has volunteered to serve as coordinator of development for the Family Justice Center.

Dr. William Horgan of Hartford Healthcare, an emergency medicine physician, expert on strangulation and longtime ally of Safe Futures, likened the family justice center to the 24-hour Coronavirus Command Center he’s been staffing. He said people in crisis, whether it be because of domestic violence or concern about the virus, need someone to turn to for support, someone to validate their fears and concerns, someone to provide care, someone to help them keep functioning on a day-to-day basis and provide them security.

Also in attendance were long-term, dedicated volunteers and, perhaps most importantly, domestic violence survivors, like Nazmie Ojeda, who reminded the gathering of their mission.

Ojeda, Safe Futures’ director of education and community engagement, said that after she disclosed at age 12 that she was being abused, she had to tell her story over and over to police, therapists and others and that her mother, who worked three jobs, had to drive an hour to take her to a children’s center. It felt like she was leaving a piece of herself every time she sat in front of a stranger with a pad and paper, Ojeda said. It finally came to the point where she said, “I’m done.”

So when Verano started talking to her about a family justice center, where a victim could access all the help they need in one place, she was all in.

“She was saying, can you imagine what it would feel like not having to share your story over and over, to be able to file a police report and talk to a therapist in one building?” Ojeda recalled.

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