Story by: Jonathan Edwards
Tequila Morris’ boyfriend kicked her in the face so hard a few years ago, the area around her eye swelled to the size of a tennis ball. In another attack, he hit her with a 10-speed bicycle, the pedal gouging a hole in her leg.
Morris, 40, wanted to leave and sought help to do so. She went to the hospital and waited for two hours before she got fed up and left. She also went to the magistrate’s office to take out charges against her boyfriend, but knowing he might look for her there, she got scared and left.
Ultimately, Morris went back to her abuser. It was one of the seven to 10 times she would return to him, a calculated surrender under the duress of him stalking her, vandalizing her car, showing up at her job.
After the kick to the eye, Morris suffered two more years of abuse before she left him for good.
She thinks that would have happened earlier if the help she needed — police, prosecutors, a magistrate, counseling, medical treatment, housing assistance — had been in one spot, instead of scattered about. That’s why she’s excited that officials on Thursday opened the state’s first “family justice center” in the building that already houses the YWCA South Hampton Roads in downtown Norfolk.
She was scheduled to be one of the survivors cutting the ribbon at the event Thursday afternoon.
The YWCA is teaming up with the Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, Norfolk Police Department, and several other agencies to open what they’re calling a “one-stop shop” where victims of rape, elder abuse and domestic violence can get the services they need instead of finding and getting to multiple places.
Kristen Pine, the YWCA South Hampton Roads’ chief program officer, said victims like Morris routinely have to go to eight different places to get basic services. Those include the hospital for medical treatment, the police department to report the crime, a nurse who specializes in doing rape kits, a magistrate’s office to take out charges or get an emergency protective order against their abuser, a prosecutor’s office to follow up with their case, social services to get housing assistance if they have to move out.
“That can get overwhelming,” Pine said. “It’s difficult enough to get out of bed in the morning. And then if you have to take three buses to be able to go try to figure out what’s happening with your case — victims just don’t (do it.)”
Sometimes the place they have to go isn’t even in Norfolk. For example, sexual assault victims have had to go to Chesapeake for rape kits, because that’s where the area’s only provider is. Now, a nurse will be embedded at the center on East Plume Street.
Family justice centers are new to Virginia, but started 30 years ago in San Diego when officials figured victims would have an easier time accessing services like sexual assault nurses, prosecutors, and sex crimes detectives if all those people were in the same place.
In 2003, President George W. Bush created a national Family Justice Center Initiative based on the San Diego model that had been born 14 years earlier. It injected $20 million into building 15 centers around the country.
These centers have increased prosecution rates while lowering the number of domestic violence homicides, Pine said. Officials in San Diego saw a 95% decrease in domestic violence-related homicides in 15 years, according to a 2007 news release from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women.
The DOJ considers the family justice model a “best practice” in intervening in and preventing domestic violence.
“If victims feel more supported, if they get more services, they’re more likely to go through the court process, Pine said.
But they don’t have to, Pine said. In fact, the Norfolk center is divided into two hallways — the criminal justice wing and the civil wing.
On one side, victims can meet with a police detective and a prosecutor to work on investigating, charging, and prosecuting their attackers. On the other, they can get counseling, housing assistance, or avail themselves of the inhouse Department of Health and Human Services employee to, say, get food stamps. Victims can choose one track or both.
“While everything is here, that doesn’t mean that that victim has to report to law enforcement, has to talk to a prosecutor,” Pine said. “That victim gets to say, “‘This is what I want to happen.’
“The victim here drives the bus.”
To launch Norfolk’s center, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office received two grants from the DOJ’s Office on Violence Against Women, totalling roughly $850,000. One is to fight elder abuse, while the other will be used to hire an additional domestic violence prosecutor as well as a civil lawyer. Prosecutors also got a $471,503 state grant from the Department of Criminal Justice Services.
The YWCA won a $1.65 million state grant from the Department of Criminal Justice Services, topped with a $252,000 match from the United Way.
Morris wasn’t able to avail herself of the center because it didn’t exist. But she’s part of the advisory committee making it better for future victims.
For example, center officials added a cell phone charging station in the waiting room when the committee suggested teenagers might want them while their parent is being helped. One thought was that a teen, frustrated by a dying phone, might reach out to an abuser and tell them where they are.
Morris said she’s proud to be a part of the center’s mission.
“This place is going to save a lot of lives,” she said.