Forsyth County leaders took the first public step Tuesday to creating a Family Justice Center that will help victims of such problems as domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and elder abuse.

The center has been in the planning stages for about 18 months, and the county’s been working toward it even longer.

Several organizations in the county are exploring creating a center that would house programs allowing victims to come to one location to receive services and support, rather than having to go to several agencies and repeat what happened to them.

The services will expand upon Safe on Seven, a Forsyth County program that was started in 2005 by the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office.

It, too, is a one-stop program for victims and survivors of domestic violence.

“The work’s been done for decades,” said Catrina Thompson, Winston-Salem police chief. “As we become more educated in what you can do, (we’ve expanded). We believe this is the time to take Safe on Seven to the next level.”

The Forsyth County Family Justice Center could include law-enforcement members, crisis advocates, medical personnel, domestic violence shelter staff, social workers, health department staff, legal assistance and more.

On Tuesday, Bob Feikema, president of Family Services in Forsyth County, said several organizations will examine the best path forward for a possible Family Justice Center, taking about a year to examine which programs in the county are already working well and what may be needed. Invested stakeholders include government, law enforcement, legal entities and family-violence agencies, as well as input from the public.

Part of the county’s examination included inviting Casey Gwinn, president and co-founder of Alliance for HOPE International, to Forsyth County for two days. Alliance for HOPE International started the first family justice center in San Diego in 2002, and has helped establish family justice centers in 40 state and 25 countries, Gwinn said.

North Carolina has one of the highest number of justice centers open or developing in the country, behind California, which has 22 open and 10 in development. There are five in North Carolina already — in Guilford, Buncombe, Alamance, Henderson and a combination one in Nash and Edgecombe counties, Gwinn said. Additionally, six others are in the planning stages, including facilities in Wake, Mecklenburg and Forsyth counties.

“We believe survivors of abuse and trauma should go to one place for what they need. Safe on Seven is a perfect example of that,” Gwinn said. “Agencies have to set aside ego and turf to come together.”

He said a family justice center takes Safe on Seven a step further.

Feikema said the Guilford County Family Justice Center, which opened in 2015 in Greensboro and expanded to a second location in High Point last year, has been an inspiration.

“We’ve learned a lot,” he said. “But each (center) has to reflect the area it’s in.”

Iris Sunshine, the executive director of the Children’s Law Center of Central North Carolina, also gave credit to Guilford County’s center and said if Forsyth County moves forward, the Triad will have untold resources for victims.

“We’ve benefitted from that center,” she said. “We will serve so many more survivors. In conjunction with Guilford County, it will have a far-reaching ripple effect.”

Area leaders said including elder abuse in Forsyth County’s center was important. Only 20 of the 130 family justice centers open in the U.S. include those victims, Gwinn said.

Feikema said that was something that needed to be addressed in Forsyth County.

“We needed additional resources and assessment for elders that are being abused,” he said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, area leaders declined to speculate on a possible location for Forsyth County’s family justice center or potential funding, saying there is much more planning that needs to go into the idea.

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