OLEAN — More than 60 people representing a wide variety of agencies met Tuesday to discuss how to form a two-county Family Justice Center.
Modeled after the Southern Tier Child Advocacy Center, which serves both Cattaraugus and Allegany counties, the Family Justice Center would add domestic abuse and wellness components.
Kearen Hill, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center since it was formed in 2007, welcomed those attending the two-hour informational program to discuss plans for a Family Justice Center.
Those representing agencies who already deal with cases of domestic abuse seemed to agree with the one-stop aspect of a Family Justice Center.
Hill said Assemblyman Joseph Giglio, R-Gowanda, planted the seed in her head of the need for a Family Justice Center in Cattaraugus and Allegany counties.
Giglio chaired an Assembly Minority Task Force on Preventing Domestic Violence in 2017. Domestic violence victims testified to a feeling of helplessness when trying to leave an abusive relationship.
Hill said staff at the Child Advocacy Center deal with all manner of child abuse — largely sexual abuse — and weren’t focused on domestic violence. As much as 40% of the CAC caseload in 2015 had a domestic violence component, she said.
“We want to talk about this and see where it goes next,” Hill told the group.
Both Cattaraugus County District Attorney Lori P. Rieman and Allegany County DA Keith A. Slep spoke highly of the Child Advocacy Center’s ability to bring several agencies together to interview child abuse victims at the CAC building in Olean.
Giglio said many women don’t know where to go if the family breadwinner is abusive. What about the kids schooling and housing? he asked. These are some of the reasons women stay in an abusive relationship.
The assemblyman said that when he was chairing the hearings on domestic abuse it occurred to him that his district needed what few counties in the state have: A Family Justice Center.
Giglio said he toured the Erie County Family Justice Center in Buffalo with executive director Mary Travers Murphy, who later spoke to the group via Skype. She said one of the Family Justice Center’s partners, the UB Law School, has been very helpful and she suggested the Southern Tier group reach out to them also. The organization has an $800,000 budget, about half of which they have to raise each year.
Travers Murphy said the Erie County FJC has nine crisis counselors. It relies heavily on faith-based groups for satellite offices in Orchard Park and Williamsville. There is also a satellite on the East Side of Buffalo. All the offices can help a women get a court order of protection.
“Confidentiality is the key,” she added. She urged group members to look at their website at www.fjcsafe.org.
Geography will be a problem in the Southern Tier, Giglio said. We will have to have satellites. “It will take that kind of effort. We are on the threshold of where we want to be. Let’s show other parts of the state how well we can do it.”
Giglio said domestic abuse is “a crisis that is not going away.” It’s necessary to create awareness of the problem so people won’t be ashamed to come forward and report it. “We what to give them a place to go to take the fear away.”
Hill told the group STCAC has investigated more than 2,000 child abuse cases since its inception in 2007.”Those experiences can follow them into adulthood” when the abused can become the abuser.”
Of the 250 child abuse cases investigated this year, 46 included more than two types of abuse, 29 reported more than three types of abuse, 12 reported more than four types of abuse and five more than five types of abuse. One, she said, reported six types of abuse.
Our population continues to decrease, but abuse cases continue to increase, Hill said.
In order to address the abuses, it will take bringing the Child Advocacy Center, Family Justice Center and a Wellness Center under one roof, Hill said.
Anthony Turano, Cattaraugus County Social Services commissioner, said, “It’s the logical next step to serve victims of domestic violence and child sexual abuse. It’s a matter of when.”
Also, Turano said, in the next step, survivors of domestic abuse should be part of the group discussing how to for a Family Justice Center.
Tina Zerbian, CEO of Cattaraugus Community Action said her organization already aids domestic abuse victims with counseling and housing.
“We can look at the entire family at the Family Justice Center,” she said. “We have to make sure we are victim-centered and offer a safe place.”
Zerbian said, “It makes sense to have all (family) services in one place,” especially “if one of the parents is a victim too.”
Rieman, the Cattaraugus County district attorney, said state bail reforms will make it more difficult to keep people safe. “We can’t depend on the state for anything,”
A local Family Justice Center “would increase the probability of prosecution and keep victims safe,” Rieman said. “The Child Advocacy Center model has made it possible to get convictions.”
Gulio Giardini, a New York State Police senior investigator, said there were more than 440 cases involving children investigated through the Olean and Machias substations in 2018. The cases included allegations of abuse, medical, mental and suicide issues.
“Our strength is our size,” Giardini said of Cattaraugus and Allegany counties. “We know our people are our greatest strength,” he said of the group.
Everyone agreed that victims often feel that leaving a relationship is more dangerous than staying in it. Some of the barriers are geography, the lack of transportation and affordable housing.
Hill said it would really be helpful to have agencies and services available under one roof, with satellite locations to extend the program. “What we need is a building,” she added.
Olean Mayor William Aiello, a former juvenile officer with the Olean Police Department, said he is “here 100%.” He said the next meeting should include faith-based groups.
The next step, Hill said, was to form committees from members of the group “to look at tackling this large initiative.” Giglio thanked everyone for attending. “This is who we are,” he said. “It is a multi-faceted approach. I know we can pull this off here.”