Story by: Maureen Strode
For victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child or elder abuse, “half the battle is finding out who can help you,” according to Kern County Deputy District Attorney Andrea Kohler.
That’s why 18 months ago, the county opened the doors to the Kern County Family Justice Center, a place intended to ease the search for help by serving as a one-stop shop that houses various agencies. At the time of its inception, the concept of such a facility was new in the justice community.
Kohler, who works directly with the center, said it has exceeded expectations, especially when it comes to getting the word out about the services provided.
“We’re seeing a wide base of people coming in,” Kohler said. “No matter where you live, no matter what your situation is, we want you to know this is available to help if there is a domestic violence or sexual assault-type issue going on.”
With its community partners, the Family Justice Center provides services ranging from counseling to legal assistance and help with filing restraining orders. But what’s so impactful about the center is that the experience is tailored to the needs of each person, Kohler said.
The services provided come from a variety of organizations, many of which have been helping Kern County victims for years.
The center houses representatives from the Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault, the Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, victim advocates from the DA’s office, Kern County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, Kern County Department of Human Services and Child Support Services. Off-site partners, like the Bakersfield Police Department, Kern County Sheriff’s Office, Dress for Success Bakersfield and Aging and Adult Services also offer support.
For example, the Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault, which has operated a hotline since 1979, now provides crisis intervention, emergency services and supportive programs at the center.
Former District Attorney Lisa Green was instrumental in opening the Family Justice Center. Shortly after she was elected in 2011, Green said, five Kern County women from different occupational backgrounds went to a conference in San Diego and heard leaders from other counties discuss the power and potential of Family Justice Centers. Afterward, Green began planning to bring one to Bakersfield.
The concept of a Family Justice Center began in San Diego in 2002. There are now a number of centers across the country, including in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Tennessee.
They “focus on reducing the number of times victims tell their story, the number of places victims must go for help, and look to increase access to services and support for victims and their children,” according to the Family Justice Center Alliance website.
The one-stop model creates convenience, and even safety, for those in need of services.
“A lot of people who are in a crisis situation, depending on their situation, are having to seek out help in secret,” Kohler said. “We know that those crimes continue to happen and our desire was to get the word out to as many people as possible.”
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