Hopes are high for a Hamilton County Family Justice Center initiative

Hopes are high for a Hamilton County Family Justice Center initiative

September 29th, 2013 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

Charlotte Boatwright

Charlotte Boatwright

Photo by Brett Clark

Women trying to leave abusive relationships need a safe place to find shelter and support, make a police report, or seek a restraining order. They need to find these things in one place rather than trek from office to office - a hurdle that makes it more difficult to ever leave their abusers, experts say.

Chattanooga officials will use a three-year, $225,000 grant from the state to meet this community need, said Paul Smith, the city's public safety coordinator.

The grant will help establish the Hamilton County Family Justice Center, a "one-stop" shop where abuse victims can learn the life skills needed to leave harmful relationships and embrace the ability to choose their futures.

"This ought to be a place where we can get you here and keep you safe," Smith said.

Statewide figures show Tennessee ranks sixth-worst in the nation for violence against women. The annual report released by the Violence Policy Center shows 59 women died from domestic violence in 2011.

In 2012, there were 3,076 victims of domestic violence in Hamilton County. From 2011-2012, incidents of stalking, intimidation, aggravated assault and murder related to domestic violence all rose, according to the city's grant application. In Chattanooga, three women were killed by their husbands or boyfriends in that time.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who has made reducing domestic violence one of his key priorities, chose Juanita Loundmonclay from more than 100 applicants to be the family justice center's coordinator.

Smith highlighted Loundmonclay's vision and experience in start-up programs with the Salvation Army and an outreach center for Westminster Church. She will work with churches, nonprofit

organizations, law enforcement and community leaders to create the center.

While Chattanooga has found ways to support women and men who are abused, services can be disjointed. The city can do more, said Charlotte Boatwright, president of the Domestic Violence Coalition of Greater Chattanooga.

"We haven't done nearly enough in the area of prevention," she said.

Smith noted, however, that the new center is not designed to compete with existing nonprofit agencies or service providers.

Smith said organizers are looking to house the center in a location central to the greatest number of people, one that is close to a bus line.

Loundmonclay and other city officials this week will visit the Knoxville Family Justice Center, one of the nation's oldest. Amy Dilworth, coordinator for the Knoxville center, said such agencies are growing in number as communities confront the chronic problem of domestic violence.

Providing a place where victims of abuse can go to get all of the help a community can offer has proven to be a successful model, she said.

Increased awareness about domestic violence typically leads to significant increases in incidents reports, she noted. In 2004, about 17,600 domestic violence incidents were reported in Knoxville. By 2011 there were 19,800. The center now is starting to see a decrease in overall incidents reported, the ultimate goal, Dilworth said.

After the grant expires, city and county leaders will have to figure out how to sustain the center.

Stacy Richardson, Berke's senior adviser, said it's too soon to talk about how the center will function after the grant runs out. But she said the city has support from a broad base, including the county, Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, City Council members, the Domestic Violence Coalition, Southeast Tennessee Legal Services, the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, the district attorney's office and others.

Smith said in the coming months, the city will invite every stakeholder to work on a center that meets everyone's needs.

"[The center] belongs to the community," he said.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.