Family Justice Center Offers New Strategy to Help Violence Victims

Family Justice Center Manager Jill Smialek speaks with people attending an open house this month.
Family Justice Center Manager Jill Smialek speaks with people attending an open house this month.
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JOANNA: Hi, Tony.

TONY: Joanna, this idea of a safe place with many services—seems like it has a lot of moving parts.

JOANNA: It does – but the whole point is to bring them all together. There’s already a lot of help available for victims, but it’s spread out across different agencies, in different parts of the city. That may be an inconvenience for someone who isn’t in crisis – but for a victim, it can be almost insurmountable. I spoke with Judge Ronald Adrine, he’s the Cleveland Municipal Court judge who’s been pushing to start a center like this for a long time. He pointed out all the different needs someone might have if they’re fleeing an abusive partner: housing, food, clothing, transportation, legal issues, childcare, and more. He says having to go to so many places to get those resources can actually be dangerous.

ADRINE (sound byte): You deem that it would be better to go back, where you know what you’re up against, than to be out in the cold where you don’t.

TONY: So, Joanna, is Cleveland’s Family Justice Center just housing these services, or offering some coordination? How’s it work?

JOANNA: Coordination is really the whole point. When a client comes in, they meet with an intake worker. These are advocates from Cuyahoga County’s Witness/Victim Service Center. That worker will talk to the victim and reach out to all the other organizations that need to get involved. A handful of those have staff right in the office: the city police and prosecutor, the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, there’s specialized help for kids who’ve seen violence – and there are partnerships with lots of other groups. The intake workers also act as a liaison between a victim and police detectives and prosecutors.

TONY: So this includes social work, and also legal work?

JOANNA: Absolutely. Advocates say if you support victims well, they’re a lot more likely to fully participate in the legal process. Here’s how the center’s manager, Jill Smialek, put it.

SMIALEK (sound byte): How are you going to make it downtown for a court proceeding that’s going to be difficult and confusing, if you don’t have transportation? If you don’t have any bus tickets, if you don’t have childcare for your kids, if you don’t have food on the table, and you’ve got to get to work or otherwise you’re going to lose your job?

JOANNA: Smialek says if you can help victims meet those needs, they can focus more on the court case, and you actually end up with more prosecutions.

TONY: Joanna, when you visited this Family Justice Center, I wonder what it was like? How did it feel being there, if that makes sense?

JOANNA: Well, that’s important, actually. And it kind of surprised me. It looks almost like a living room. There are armchairs and couches, and soft colors and nice lighting. There’s a playroom for kids, and a room for private conversations. Judge Adrine told me the atmosphere is designed to reduce a victim’s anxiety the moment they walk in the door.

TONY: So where did the idea for a center like this come from?

JOANNA: Well, Judge Adrine visited a Family Justice Center in San Diego, back in the early 2000s. It just made a lot of sense to him, it seemed to address a lot of problems he saw victims in his courtroom here face. That original center became a national organization – the Family Justice Center Alliance. It got some federal funding, and other sites popped up around the country. And they really made a difference: victims were less likely to return to their abusers, there were more successful prosecutions, and fewer homicides, too. The model has kind of taken off. And now, after many years of work, Cleveland’s adopting it, too.

TONY: Did the judge say anything about why he made this such a focus?

JOANNA: Yes. It’s not only about helping individual victims. Judge Adrine told me the great majority of prisoners come from violent homes. So he thinks efforts like this to reduce domestic violence might also cut down on violence in the streets.

TONY: Thanks for explaining this.

JOANNA: You’re welcome, Tony.

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