Samuel Lamacka never considered going to a domestic violence court hearing just to learn until he came to Chattanooga.
"In Slovakia, the services are at a lower level because we don't have the funds," said the 27-year-old social worker from the Eastern European country.
In Bratislava, the country's capital, he is one of two social workers at Dúha, a crisis center for women and children, and his responsibilities range from essential care to counseling and crisis intervention. It's all they can do just to help their clients with day-to-day needs, much less have time to go to court just for the chance to learn something new, he said.
That's what he came to the United States to do.
Mr. Lamacka has been in Chattanooga for about a week, learning about the domestic violence shelter at the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, part of an exchange with Dúha that started four years ago.
In Chattanooga, he attended court with Lydia Salva, a local victim advocate with the Partnership.
* Population: 5.5 million
* The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the close of World War I allowed the Slovaks to join the closely related Czechs to form Czechoslovakia.
* Following World War II, Czechoslovakia became a communist nation within Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe.
* Soviet influence collapsed in 1989.
* The Slovaks and the Czechs separated on Jan 1, 1993.
* Slovakia joined both NATO and the European Union in the spring of 2004 and the euro area on Jan. 1, 2009.
Source: Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook
"In my country, I've never been in a court like Lydia, where she just comes to learn how to better help her clients," Mr. Lamacka said.
The project is coordinated by Bryan College's Center for International Development, which every year has 20 to 25 initiatives in Central and Eastern Europe, said Dennis Miller, executive director of external relations at the school in Dayton, Tenn.
"One of the areas we are particularly interested in is women and children because there is a lack of social services," he said. "The University of Minnesota estimates 38 percent of women (in Slovakia) are abused, yet there are very few shelters in the country."
Last year, 18 women spent time at Dúha, one of only four shelters in the capital city of 430,000 people, Mr. Lamacka said.
"One of the reasons it is such a serious and prevalent problem in that part of the world is that you have a country trying to recover from Marxism, and you have quite large numbers of people living in incredibly small spaces, you have high unemployment, low salaries for people who are employed, and very high alcoholism," Mr. Miller said, "a really bad formula that oftentimes leads to domestic violence."
Regina McDevitt, Crisis Resource Center director at the Partnership, has assessed the shelter in Bratislava twice and is planning a third trip in April to visit a second shelter in the city.
"A lot of the consultation is talking about what works here, the layout, do you have a play room? A room where they can wash their clothes? Do you understand the cycle of violence?" she said.
During Mr. Lamacka's visit, he will attend meetings in which the progress of the clients is discussed, tour the local shelters, participate in support groups and see how the court system in the United States works.
When he returns to Slovakia on Saturday, he said he wants to increase the shelter's public relations, the number of staff, client support and the availability of printed information.