Story By: Michael Banks

Victims of domestic violence or sexual assault can often find themselves overwhelmed in the hours and days following an attack.

There are questions (Where can I go for help? Who can assist me and my children? How can the local court system help prevent another attack?) and mounds of paperwork that can leave one feeling buried and hopeless.

A new organization in Gaston County called the Hope United Survivor Network is hoping to ease those burdens for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and elder abuse and remove as many barriers as possible.

“If you were a survivor of domestic violence there was a long list of places that you could go to and a lot of paperwork. There was a lot of opportunity for that survivor to throw their hands in the air because it’s just too much,” said Tara Joyner, director of the Hope United Survivor Network.

“When you have children and you have trauma… I don’t know how they ever did it,” Joyner said. “We essentially navigate the system for them and we bring the services to them. Our goal is to work harder than they have to work. They can tell us what they want and what they need. It is very much survivor focused.”

In its first two weeks of operation, the office is already assisting 10 survivors, mostly all of them being related to domestic violence cases.

They are partnered with police agencies such as the Gaston County Sheriff’s Office and Gaston County Police Department, as well as Legal Aid of North Carolina, who provides help with domestic violence protection orders. After 5 p.m. and on weekends, calls to their phone number are automatically forwarded to the Cathy Mabry Cloninger Center, a domestic violence shelter in Gastonia. Clinicians and sexual assault advocates with Phoenix Counseling will also offer services.

“What you have in this community are a lot of really good service providers, but it’s really hard to stay engaged,” Joyner said. “All the partners we are working with are very excited. We are working together to remove as many barriers as possible for people to increase their safety and well-being for themselves and their families.”

The new organization stems from November 2017 when a group of individuals formed a steering committee for a Family Justice Center. That committee was chaired by Judge John Greenlee, the chief District Court judge in Gaston County. In looking at the vast amount of community resources, the committee soon determined a coordinated community response was needed.

“It’s been a long time in the making,” Joyner said.

The group was awarded a two-year grant totaling $1.2 million in federal money funded through the Governor’s Crime Commission in North Carolina. The money is used to pay salaries, rent and services for survivors, such as contracting with two local attorneys, Jamie Hester Griffith and Ann Payseur, to handle additional legal work.

“We’ll be applying for additional grant funding,” Joyner said.

What had been originally referred to as the Family Justice Center or the Center of Hope was renamed in April as the Hope United Survivor Network. The name change was done to avoid any confusion with any other existing service providers.

“If they feel scared enough to make one phone call, we don’t want that phone call to go the wrong place,” Joyner said. “Plus, Family Justice Center felt a little restrictive. Not every survivor wants justice. Some of them just want emergency shelter. Some of them want mental health counseling.”

They’ve been in operation since April 13 in a temporary location in the Penegar Building in downtown Gastonia. Their permanent home, which is currently undergoing renovation, will be across the street at 174 W. Frankin Blvd. The survivor network will occupy three floors of the building. Joyner said the goal is to have renovations completed by this fall.

In addition to Joyner, other staff members include Brittany Froning, Yamicka Cassell and Stephanie Jamoulis.

Froning is the community navigator, who is the first person the survivor speaks with. She listens to their stories and puts them in touch with partner agencies. Cassell is the case manager and provides ongoing support and seeks services on behalf of the survivor. Jamoulis is the office’s administrative assistant.

Joyner previously spent 13 years with the Gaston County Department of Health and Human Services, working as a social worker and a program coordinator. Prior to her new position, she was serving as the program coordinator for The Lighthouse Children’s Advocacy Center and the Therapeutic Visitation Center at First United Methodist Church in Gastonia. She was also working on establishing the Family Justice Center and eventually was hired as its director.

“I had so much stuff in my head from working on it so long, I just couldn’t imagine having to give it over to somebody. That’s kind of what brought me here,” Joyner said. “I’ve loved every job I’ve had.”

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