Story by: Jan Skutch
A vacant city of Savannah property on Waters Avenue may soon be the home of a much-anticipated one-stop haven for domestic violence victims seeking help.
“We have a building,” said Chatham County District Attorney spokeswoman Kristin Fulford. “It’s a small building, but it’s enough to get us started.”
She called the location at 2005 Waters Ave. in the Waters Avenue Shopping Center a starting point, not a permanent site.
“We’re thrilled with it,” she said, adding an end-of-summer opening was hoped for.
Savannah City Council last month approved an agreement with the district attorney’s office for use of a portion of the facility to house a space for the program staff refers to as the coordinated community response center.
There victims of domestic violence can meet with police and prosecutors to access victim assistance crisis management, information on the criminal justice center, a 24-hour crisis line, case management, temporary protective order and related service.
Chatham County commissioners are scheduled to add their support at next Friday’s meeting.
The family justice center is the culmination of an initiative Fulford’s boss, Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap, proposed in early 2016 to bring those agencies dealing with domestic violence under one roof.
Members of the team
Its goal is to provide a comprehensive approach to replace the current multi pockets and give victims a single site for help rather than the current 6 to 10 sites.
The program calls for bringing together the prosecutor’s office, Rape Crisis Center of the Coastal Empire, Savannah Area Family Emergency (SAFE) Shelter Center for Domestic Violence Services, and Coastal Children’s Advocacy Center, under one roof.
Key to that effort is a leadership role provided by the Savannah Police Department and its reconstituted Family Violence Unit which Police Chief Roy Minter announced in February with Capt. David Gay in charge.
“We’re not creating services,” Fulford said. “We’re creating framework to access existing services in one location.
“If you make it easier to access, you’ll fulfill a greater need,” Fulford said. “In cities where they’ve done it, they’ve reduced domestic violence homicide rates.”
In addition to grants already obtained, Fulford said plans call for creating a nonprofit arm to access private and corporate donations, she said.
Heap, who formerly was a victim advocate working with domestic violence victims, has made domestic violence crimes a focus of her office effort.
“We have assigned more assistant prosecutors to focus on domestic violence that any other crime,” Heap said. “We are working on it and we have done everything we can do within our power. … but within the framework of the criminal justice system.”
She has beefed up her Special Victim Unit prosecution team under Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Lindretta Grindle Kramer and continued training of both law enforcement and her assistants, as well as working with local programs designed to address the needs of domestic violence and rape victims.
The family justice center concept is one such effort.
Fulford, who serves as grant writer for Heap, tried unsuccessfully in 2016 to obtain a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Woman to respond in a more comprehensive and timely manner to victims of sexual violence, of domestic and dating violence, and of stalking through a single assistance site.
Then Heap went to Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach to ask for space in a city-owned location.
“We will continue to pursue grants but we won’t wait for them,” Fulford said. “This is too important.”
She said other grant possibilities are anticipated through the state’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
While domestic violence cases cross Chatham County Superior Court dockets on a regular basis, cases like the recent murder trial of Isaac Shellman in the death of his wife raise the greatest alarm.
Shellman, 38, last month was sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 20 years after a jury convicted him of murder and related offenses in the 2016 slaying of Shanelle Shellman, in their bedroom.
Testimony showed the victim stayed with an abusive spouse before he put a gun to her head and killed her, then turned it on himself.
“She wanted the marriage to work,” Chatham County Assistant District Attorney Maggie Hinchey DeLeon told the jury. “She wanted to be loved.”
The thrust for the family justice center program was a steep jump — more than double — in domestic homicides in 2015 over the previous year. That was accompanied by an 81 percent jump in domestic aggravated assaults for the same period.
Heap said those increases prompted Cheryl Branch, executive director of the SAFE shelter, to urge action.
Branch, executive director of the SAFE Shelter for 12 years and a 23-year agency veteran, said the family justice center “is huge. It will be the first family justice center in Georgia.
“Our victim services will be amazing,” she said, emphasizing that it is a collaboration among the service providers.
Last year the center, which assists victims of domestic violence and sex assault, provides a safe haven for victims and often the only place they can safely go to get away from their abusers, served 1,088 victims, most of whom were female.
She said the center created a site where already traumatized victims can go to get the help they need in one place.
Other supporting agencies
Doris L. Williams, who became executive director of the Rape Crisis Center of the Coastal Empire in October, said the center offers a “one-stop shop to victims of rape or sexual assault.”
It will allow those victims to find help from available agencies under one roof and eliminate the need to go to multiple locations.
Also eliminated will be the transportation hurdle that often discourages victims from seeking available assistance.
The agency made 174 hospital visits last year and completed 157 rape kits, a level she said was slightly less than anticipated.
Rose Grant-Robinson, a veteran of the SAFE Shelter program, has been executive director of the Coastal Georgia Advocacy Center since October 2016.
There her staff sees children between ages two and 18 who are victims of sexual or physical abuse or who have witnessed violent crime.
Often the center will be children from homes where domestic violence between adults will result in children being abused, a well, she said.
The center will allow advocates to get with police officers “so we can get things moving with that child,” she said.
Last year, the center saw 208 children, an increase from 154 victims in 2017.
Minter, who took the reins of the Savannah Police Department in August 2018, launched the department’s Family Violence Unit in February.
That was, in part, a response to what police said were roughly 45 percent of the department’s aggravated assault cases being family-violence-related.
“Family violence calls are some of the most dangerous calls our officers respond to and some of the most stressful and traumatic situations for families, also,” Minter said.
“Over the past several years, the Savannah Police Department has had a decentralized approach to investigating these types of incidents. While this approach has been very effective, we believe a more centralized investigative process is a better way to investigate these types of incidents.”
The new unit, headed by Capt. David Gay with five detectives, will work closely with the SAFE Shelter and prosecutors to better identify resources for victims and develop the best investigative techniques, Gay said.
“First and foremost we want to recognize that this is a partnership,” Gay said. “Each of us brings a unique perspective and a different skill set to this problem of family violence. As we move forward, we are all going to be working together.”
Identifying the need
According to Heap, in Chatham County last year, police responded to 3,339 domestic disturbance calls, including 148 domestic aggravated assault calls.
Five of those were domestic homicides.
Statistics nationwide add support to the local effort, she said. They include:
• 75 percent of homicide victims of domestic violence died at the time of separation in the relationship.
• A woman is beaten every 15 second in the United States, according to the FBI.
• One of our women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, according to the National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control.
• Nearly one-third of women killed in the U.S. are killed by intimate partners or ex-partners, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
• Approximately 50 percent of homeless women and children are on the street because of domestic violence.
One domestic violence murder case can cost $2.6 million from police response to $1.5 million for court prosecutions and $1 million in state prison sentence of two life terms, according to the U.S. Department of Health of Human Services Office of Violence Prevention.
Family justice centers
Heap said the use of family justice centers are successful with nearly 100 such centers in existence as of 2018.
Those centers are credited with reducing homicides, an increase in victim safety, an increase in autonomy for victims with increased efficiency and coordination among services, Heap said.
In addition, such centers reduce recantations of victims and families.
Statistics also show:
• Felony convictions go up.
• Victims are more likely to participate later if all needs are met
• Homicides go down when collaboration and coordination is strong.
• Co-location of professionals create mutual accountability and better long-term outcomes.
San Diego experience
The gold standard is the San Diego Family justice Center, the nation’s first which is a part of the San Diego City Attorney’s office.
Started in 2002, it combined efforts of the city attorney’s office and San Diego Police Department to bring together a team of mental health providers, nurses, restraining order clinic attorneys, prosecutors, domestic violence advocates, immigration specialists, police and other social service providers and provides free-of-charge services to victims of domestic violence.
Heap said that program slashed domestic violence homicide from 30 to three in the first eight years of service and no deaths from 29,000 clients seeking services.
San Diego experienced the lowest domestic violence homicide rate of any major U.S. city while reducing “dropping charges” from 70 percent of cases to 30 percent, she said.
Most used service providers there were:
• Restraining order clinic/civil legal services
• Advocacy/ counseling/safety planning
• Law enforcement/prosecution services
• Children’s services
• Volunteer programs
Currently in Chatham County, domestic violence victims must travel from location to location and repeatedly tell their story to law enforcement, courts, legal aide, medical, SAFE Shelter, social service and child support.
To get to each stop also often involves transportation challenges.
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