Story by: Judith Prieve
With no money, health insurance or home to call her own, Maria Alejandra Guevara, a mother of four, found it near impossible to leave her husband despite verbal and physical abuse in her 23-year marriage.
Living amid a machismo, controlling culture where she was not allowed to work and all of life’s necessities were in her husband’s name, Guevara says she felt she had no option but to stay put. Relatives told her to “try to handle it” and look on “the good side of things.”
But after two decades Guevara had had enough and was ready to leave, yet she feared possible repercussions such as losing her children or medical benefits. Twice she sought and obtained restraining orders before finally talking with a social worker friend who directed her to an organization that would make all the difference in her life — the Family Justice Center in Concord.
“He took away all the money and told me I needed to learn how to ask for money, for everything, he told me the house wasn’t mine … that’s when I said I am going to put my kids first and I am going to fight for my family,” the Antioch mother said.
Staff at the Family Justice Center provided her with a lawyer, money for gas and food, help filling out an array of forms, including ones for health insurance, as well as therapy, parenting classes and much more. The only negative was the cost of gas and time to travel to and from the center.
But soon visits to the Family Justice Center will get a whole lot easier for East County residents like Guevara because the nonprofit will be opening a new office in Antioch, in addition to one it also has in Richmond.
“They helped me a lot, with the restraining order, with legal help — I just love the Justice Center,” Guevara said through tears. “They give me all the support that I needed. They call me all the time. They are helping me with everything. I didn’t know that such help was available.”
Founded in 2015, the Family Justice Center is a one-stop support network for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and elder and child abuse. The new 3,500-square-foot East Center, expected to open July 1, will bring partners on site to help clients with nearly all of their needs, Executive Director Susun Kim said.
“We have been wanting to open this new center forever,” Kim said. “Our goal is to let every Contra Costa resident know we are here.”
Kim said the nonprofit currently works with 48 partners in Central and West counties and plans to work with such groups as Bay Area Legal Aid, STAND for Families, Ombudsman Services, four police departments, counselors, senior help groups and more in East County.
At last count, the nonprofit served more 11,000 clients, nearly 600 from East County, even though they had to travel to Concord or Richmond for services, she said.
“Imagine you have several children, you don’t speak English, you don’t have a car, where do you start?” Kim asked.
The average victim who needs help has to speak with about 20 agencies to file legal papers such as restraining orders, press charges and get settled in a new life away from the abuse, she said.
“There are lots and lots of very difficult issues,” the director added. “But they can come here to one place to get all the support that they need in one stop. We also help with their long-term safety, we work on their health and welfare, too.”
Although Kim said her nonprofit does a lot of outreach, about 25 percent of the referrals come from local police, who will have officers available to meet with clients at the center as well.
“East County is growing and more people are moving here, and there are remote areas in places like Bethel Island, Oakley,” Kim said. “I think it is important that we have a center in East County. This new location is pretty centrally located.”
One of the driving forces in the push for an East County location was Contra Costa County Supervisor Diane Burgis, who is a board member of the Family Justice Center.
“I sat down with the city manager, mayors, chiefs of police and there was a general support in making it (an East County center) happen,” Burgis said.
Burgis noted the center will also offer some senior services. “There is a lot of senior abuse that happens and it is one of those things that is hard to know about unless you are looking for it,” she said.
One who found help there and now volunteers for Family Justice Center programs is Janelle Coleman of Brentwood. The divorced mother of four said she was in an emotional and verbal domestic violence situation several years ago, but managed to “get out in time” before it escalated.
“I thought I could handle it on my own and I didn’t want to snitch,” she said. “I thought I should keep it within my own people.”
But when she noticed her on-and-off-again relationship with an abusive boyfriend was affecting her children, Coleman said she finally found the strength to break the cycle.
Coleman became part of the Justice Center’s Richmond-based community fellow program, which works with people in domestic violence situations. The program has a leadership component, that helped her develop leadership skills and “created sisterhoods” who talked with each other to overcome problems.
Coleman eventually received enough training so she could help others and now volunteers whenever she can with center programs and events.
“There was always something there that I was learning — and there was the support. I have never experienced that level of support,” she said.
Coleman said the center gave her confidence to start an African-American Literacy program at her church and after-school tutoring program for students.
She also applauded the comprehensive nature of the center’s programs.
“You can get help for immigration issues, legal help, a driver’s license, applying for food stamps. Instead of participants having to go through all these doors and have to keep explaining all their stories over and over again, all these agencies come in,” she said.
“It’s the Google of family services,” Coleman added.
For more on the Family Justice Center, go to www.cocofamilyjustice.org or call 925-521-6366.
Read the original story here.