This summer the city of Chattanooga will open its first Family Justice Center to address what city officials have called an epidemic of domestic violence, but a letter sent to the city shows that city officials organizing the initiative are ignoring advice and excluding the local organization most experienced in addressing issues of violence against women.
The nonprofit Partnership for Families, Children and Adults is the only provider of rape crisis services and shelter for domestic violence in Hamilton County. Its Family Violence Center downtown already provides housing, case management, job placement, educational placement, counseling and court liaisons.
Tennessee ranks sixth in the nation for incidents of domestic violence.
Four Chattanooga homicides were linked to domestic abuse in 2014.
More than 700 orders of protection were issued in Hamilton County last year.
Source: City of Chattanooga
In initial discussions of the justice center, the Partnership, which serves 11,000 victims of domestic violence per year, was named a key partner.
The idea was to combine the services the Partnership offers in one location with law enforcement and other community services. But after Christmas, Partnership board members said Mayor Andy Berke told the nonprofit it would no longer play a significant role at the center, which is being funded, in part, by a $240,000 federal grant.
Although Berke has said he wants the justice center to be a one-stop-shop for domestic violence, Berke told the organization he didn't want a shelter housed at the center because he said it wasn't a best practice, board members said. He also turned down the Partnership's offer to use its downtown building, along with the organization's 34 community partners already housed at the center, and instead decided to open the justice center at Eastgate Town Center, documents show.
The city's decision shocked the nonprofit's executives and angered board members, who wrote in an internal memo obtained by the Times Free Press that it was ridiculous for the city to duplicate services that already exist, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars. So far the city has allocated $1.6 million to house the justice center, but city officials say the total cost is unknown.
"We are disappointed," board President Pat Neuhoff told the Times Free Press. "[The city's plan] is a clear departure from a domestic violence center and the things that we do."
Domestic violence facts in Tennessee:
* Domestic violence offenses made up 51 percent of all crimes against persons statewide in 2013.
* 68.4 percent of reported domestic violence offenses were reported by police as simple assault.
* Statewide there were 77,537 reported victims of domestic violence in 2013.
* The largest age group for domestic violence victims was women or men 25 to 34 years old.
* In Chattanooga, there were 1,829 reported victims of domestic violence in 2013.
Source: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
The nonprofit also took major issue with the fact that a 24-hour shelter was not included in the center's plans. Women being abused often need a place to take refuge overnight, and separating a shelter from a justice center just creates one more step for victims in trauma, said Sandra Hollet, the Partnership's executive director. The Family Justice Center will be open regular business hours, but domestic violence often happens at other times, she added.
"Bottom line: The FJC is the latest example of government competition," a summary of the board's internal memo stated. "It is politically motivated and overlooks the most important aspect of the issue: the victim."
Valerie Radu, director of the Family Justice Center, said the Partnership hasn't been cut out of the city's plan, but the two differ on whether a center should be combined with a shelter.
The city chose not to include the shelter because of safety concerns and because of what domestic violence victims in focus groups told the city they wanted, she said. City spokeswoman Lacie Stone said when the Partnership offered its building there was also discussion of spending $4.5 million to fix up its downtown location that houses crisis services to meet the new needs of a Family Justice Center. It didn't make sense for the city to spend the money on a building it didn't own, Stone said.
The Partnership for Families, Children and Adults Domestic Violence Program by the numbers:
* The Partnership serves about 11,000 victims each year.
* That includes 1,365 multicultural victims and 10,499 victims through the center's hotline.
* The Partnership has trained about 700 officers in domestic violence law enforcement training in 23 counties.
* They have 200 partners throughout Chattanooga and Hamilton County.
Source: Partnership for Families, Children and Adults
"With a lot of people involved [in the planning], not everybody can be satisfied with the outcome," Radu said.
She added that the city doesn't see the justice center as duplicating services in the community, but adding resources.
"The partnership does excellent work in our community," she said. "The Family Justice Center will also add to resources in the community, and the fact that only 30 percent of people in violent situations get help indicates there is a lot of work to do."
Reducing shootings and addressing domestic violence are among a handful of primary goals Berke set forth at the outset of his administration. Yet both have been accompanied by questions and doubt.
Criticism of city planning related to the justice center comes on the heels of growing concern about planning and communication with the city's Violence Reduction Initiative. A major foundation pulled funding for the VRI because of frustrations with how the program was being managed. Like the Partnership, McKenzie Foundation director Johnny Smith criticized the city for not including trusted nonprofit partners.
The Partnership for Families, Children and Adults maintains a 24-hour crisis hot line.
If you need help, call 755-2700.
Meanwhile, the number of homicides in Chattanooga was higher last year than the year before, 27 in 2014 vs. 19 in 2013.
This isn't the first hiccup with the Family Justice Center. In April, less than a year into the planning phase, the mayor's office fired the center's coordinator, Juanita Loundmonclay, after she sent an email criticizing a local domestic violence advocate who helped get the federal grant funneled to Chattanooga. City officials said at the time that Loundmonclay was fired for her performance, but the mayor acknowledged the email played a part in the decision. Radu was hired as her replacement.
Casey Gwinn, president of the National Family Justice Center Alliance, said it is typical to have a turf war between local government and community agencies over how a family justice center should be run. But if those different interests can't come together, he said the city's justice center will lose its effectiveness in the community.
"This is true across America," he said. "It takes local government willing to integrate its power with community-based organizations and community-based organizations willing to give up some of their power."
Some justice centers offer emergency shelter at their center and many don't, Gwinn said, but that's a decision typically left up to what the victims in that community say they need.
Array of services
On Jan. 13, city officials announced they would house the Family Justice Center inside a 40,000-square-foot-building at the Eastgate Town Center, a property originally being reserved for a library branch.
The center, called the Meeting Place, will have space for the justice center along with a 125-seat auditorium, recreation space, a large commercial kitchen and meeting space.
Radu said the city chose the Brainerd location based on feedback from four focus groups made up of domestic violence victims conducted last year. They said they wanted a safe place on a bus line, away from downtown, close to other services and a secure location.
Tenants at the Family Justice Center will include Legal Aid, the Children's Advocacy Center, the Chattanooga Police Department's family violence unit, Adult Protective Services and mental health services. While Radu didn't give specifics, she said the center would also include "mental health, physical health and overall well-being services."
Hollett said the city's idea of making the justice center part of a wellness and community-oriented center doesn't meet the victims' immediate needs.
"It's great to have yoga classes and a wellness center, but our victims want to know they have a safe place to breathe, live and recover," she said.
But Radu said offering wellness services such as mental health and physical health to victims of trauma is a reflection of best practices across the country.
Two domestic violence victims interviewed last week said the most important thing a Family Justice Center can offer is shelter near the social services they need to recover.
Patricia, who asked that the Times Free Press not use her last name for her safety, said after living in her car for three days with a broken ankle caused by her abusive husband, she showed up at the Partnership late in the evening about three years ago. Having the shelter's location connected to other services helped her get on her feet. While at the Partnership's shelter she was able to walk downstairs for physical therapy, counseling and support group meetings.
"If it hadn't been for this program I would have to say I would be dead now," she said. "My main thing here is safety, the location as well as the hours. They are open 24/7. Domestic violence doesn't have a time or a date it's going to happen."
Hollett said the Partnership is still open to working with the city, and she said city officials have said that the Partnership can place staff at the Family Justice Center, but she said it doesn't make sense to separate her current providers from their service location. Still, she said she has requested that the city help fund new positions to be placed at the justice center in the upcoming budget cycle.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.