Story by: Dashiell Coleman
Survivors of domestic and sexual violence may soon have an easier time getting help in Gaston County.
Plans for a family justice center — a centralized place for survivors to get aid — are moving forward after the county received preliminary approval for a $1.2 million grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission. The county will get final confirmation this fall on whether the grant money will be issued.
“We have great providers and great supporters and great services in this community that do a great job, but they’re spread out all over the county,” said Chief District Court Judge John Greenlee, one of the main advocates for a center here, said Wednesday.
There are only a few such centers in North Carolina, but the model is becoming increasingly popular across the country. Essentially, the idea is to put advocates, medical personnel, law enforcement, social workers and other key service providers under one roof so survivors of trauma have an easier time getting help.
There are hundreds of domestic violence and sexual assault cases in Gaston County every year.
Members of the unofficial task force advocating for a local center heard something alarming at a conference by the nonprofit Alliance for Hope International, which supports the creation of family justice centers. A California county had someone pose as a trauma survivor and try to get help from all the necessary agencies. Eventually, Greenlee said, the person gave up.
“I thought certainly it’s not that bad in Gaston County,” Greenlee said.
So staff sent a county Health and Human Services intern on a similar mission — without using a personal vehicle.
“Sixteen to 18 hours it took her,” Greenlee said. “This was someone who wasn’t actually traumatized. Put that in your head: Imagine someone that’s traumatized getting ready to do that… We looked at this and said, ‘This is horrible.’ This isn’t a necessary barrier to services. This is an unnecessary barrier to access to justice in our system.”
Greenlee has previously said he hopes the center can open in 2020.
Melanie Lowrance, Health and Human Services’ Children and Family Services administrator, says the county plans to rent space at one of the Penegar buildings off West Franklin Boulevard in downtown Gastonia. The site would have roughly 6,400 square feet, and the rent would be covered by the grant.
“When you’re building a family justice center, you want to be centrally located and have easy access to public transportation, and you want to be close to the courthouse,” Lowrance said.
The county also plans to work the clerk of court to implement some electronic filing system for some protective orders — something that could be done at the center.
This week, the county hosted a two-day summit on the family justice center initiative. Staff from Alliance for Hope and the Guilford County Family Justice Center came to talk to local leaders service providers and meet with survivors to get feedback.
Raeanne Passantino of Alliance for Hope said more than 300 people had filled out surveys about domestic violence services in the county — a higher level of response than the nonprofit typically gets when talking to communities about setting up family justice centers. She noted that the majority of local providers of services for survivors of domestic and sexual violence already work with government agencies and law enforcement.
“There’s already a huge level of collaboration in Gaston County,” Passantino said. ”… This shows us you are already ahead of the game and you understand the principle behind collaboration and working together, which is going to make coming together for the family justice center model a lot easier.”
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