The statistics are sobering.
Tennessee ranks sixth in the nation for incidents of domestic violence. There were four local homicides last year related to domestic violence. In 2014, Hamilton County courts issued more than 700 orders of protection, according to Valerie Radu, executive director of the Family Justice Center in Chattanooga.
Since August 2014, Radu has been working out of a third-floor office at City Hall to plan the center’s launch. She’s met with existing service providers and conducted public forums. On Tuesday, the Chattanooga City Council will cast several votes appropriating $1.6 million for a permanent facility in the Brainerd area, along with a temporary location nearby that would open this spring.
The Family Justice Center will provide free services for victims of sexual assault, human trafficking, elder abuse and domestic violence. It’s part of a statewide alliance with two centers already open in Knoxville and Memphis. Chattanooga, Nashville and Cookeville received federal grants to open their own two years ago.
The center plans to put different social services and community partners in a single, accessible location.
Listen to “Around and About”on WUTC 88.1 FM to learn more about Chattanooga’s Family Justice Center. The episode airs Jan. 20 at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Victims often end up repeating their stories to different providers, Radu said. And they have to make sure they recount every single detail the same way or risk casting doubt on very real, traumatic experiences. Putting providers in a single location can help mitigate the risk of re-traumatizing a victim.
Intimate, personal violence is complex, Radu said. Some victims leave a dangerous situation immediately. Others live with it for years. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. At the Family Justice Center, victims will be offered a menu of options and choose what they want to do.
“Somebody might be in a very abusive situation,” she said. “The police have been called three or four times. They’re familiar with the family. And it’s frustrating because you want to say to that individual, ‘Leave. There are resources in town that can really support you in getting out of that situation.’
“But that person is not ready to go. There are things they haven’t shared that prevent them from going. From a trauma-informed approach, you would be very supportive, make sure they know all their options, including staying,” she said.
The center is partnering with the Chattanooga Police Department and applying for a Justice Department grant to support victims of violence.
When Police Chief Fred Fletcher first came to the department last summer, he realized a big part of the city’s violence problem is that victims-including their neighbors, families and friends-often felt they were not valued by the community or the department. He was told then that victims do not cooperate with police.
“The answer to that seemed simple,” he said. “We need to spend more time with them. We need to visit with them, clearly demonstrate that we care.”
The department has taken steps to reach out to victims of violence of all kinds, Fletcher said. But the next step is to go beyond face-to-face meetings and connect them to resources. The Family Justice Center can put social workers on the phone when officers respond to a scene.
“We have implemented very basic, rudimentary programs to try to provide victims’ services,” he said. “I’m not a social worker. None of us are. We just know it needs to be done.”
Confronting domestic violence means understanding it from many different angles. It requires research of best practices, analysis of law enforcement data and an assessment of the work that’s being done.
The Southern Adventist University School of Social Work will provide research and technical assistance for the victims’ assistance program and a pilot test of a lethality assessment CPD hopes will help identify potential aggressors and prevent future acts of violence.
Dean Kristie Wilder said one of the areas researchers will focus on is the extent of underreporting in Chattanooga. Victims might fear for their safety if they speak out. The hope is that the Family Justice Center’s co-located model helps reverse a trend of underreporting.
“We don’t want more cases. But if it’s out there, we want them reported so it’s getting addressed in our community,” she said.
Examining this issue more closely could open up new opportunities for understanding local violence, how it gets reported and the cultures where it exists.
“It’s a broad issue,” Wilder said. “Our communities are only as strong as our families are, and domestic violence is in some ways a silent killer in families.”
Updated @ 3:34 p.m. on 1/20/15 to correct a factual error: The article originally listed $2 million as the appropriation for the Family Justice Center. The correct amount is $1.6 million.