This week’s opening of Buncombe County’s Family Justice Center offers hope, but takes its inspiration from a tragic past.
In 2013, a year that saw 108 domestic violence-related homicides across North Carolina, Buncombe County tallied eight of those and tied for second highest in the state, according to the Attorney General’s office. Data also shows in the previous five years the county had 16 domestic violence-related murders, bringing the six-year total to 24 people.
Those statistics were the catalyst for creating a one-stop center for abuse victims, according to Julie Klipp Nicholson, coordinator of the county’s new FJC. The FJC, located in the William H. Stanley Center, received $1 million from the county to renovate the space, which now houses nonprofits, law enforcement agencies, health and forensic services and other abuse-related resources. Klipp Nicholson says the FJC streamlines services, making it easier for victims to get the information and help needed to move on with their lives. “We are really a part of what’s becoming a national movement. There are a few other family justice centers in the state,” she says.
Signs of the times
The Asheville area hasn’t always been as intentional about helping victims escape abuse. Ann Von Brock moved to Asheville in 1978 and was influential in starting Helpmate, a nonprofit with that very mission as its focus. In stark contrast to the FJC’s sensibility, Von Brock says, the societal attitude toward domestic abuse victims in the late ’70s and early ’80s was hush-hush. “Basically, at that point in time, it was hidden from the public. Family members and neighbors who were aware of domestic violence tended to put the responsibility back on the victim. There were also families that worked hard to rescue victims. But there was a sense in the community that you didn’t talk about it. It was an underground problem.”
Even if it wasn’t discussed in polite company, Von Brock and others knew domestic violence was a problem. She joined a city task force focused on helping battered women, an initiative that provided a volunteer-staffed hotline for abuse victims and which would evolve into Helpmate. “In 1978, the task force did a survey of law enforcement and local agencies to try to figure out the extent of abuse, and the numbers were much higher than projected. We had expected, based on national FBI statistics, there would be about 5,000 people in Buncombe County who were being battered, and it was more like 7,000,” says Von Brock.
Ellen Clarke, another pioneer in organizing the city’s resources for abuse victims, served as the founding executive director of Western Carolinians for Criminal Justice and was involved efforts that led to the creation of the Rape Crisis Center, an entity that would become the sexual assault-awareness nonprofit Our VOICE. She says the fight for awareness went beyond family and social circles. When the Rape Crisis Center wanted to introduce rape kits to emergency rooms, and as an investigative tool for law enforcement, “It got nowhere,” Clarke recounts. “There was no interest whatsoever by law enforcement to have an outside group coming in and talking to them about how to investigate a rape.”
Von Brock also remembers trying to make rape-kit protocol a best practice. “Back then, emergency room staff didn’t have training in rape kits, and even though they were supposed to be kept in the hospital, very few ER physicians were familiar with them or knew how to collect the evidence required. The whole issue of rape kits being available and used certainly was a struggle back then,” she says.
Beyond raising awareness, there was also a need to provide resources for victims. Von Brock says abuse survivors didn’t have anywhere to go in the early days and volunteers would invite them into their own homes. “They would go pick up a woman who had just escaped an abusive situation and take her home until she could figure out what to do next. That evolved into a series of safe places to go: an apartment at the Allen Center, the Salvation Army’s Women’s Lodge. Elida Home offered a cottage. We had a sporadic network of places where women could go,” she recalls.
Clarke also remembers trying to reform antiquated state laws and policies. North Carolina did not have the option of prosecuting marital rape until 1993. “That was huge: the idea you weren’t property and didn’t have conjugal obligations. It’s so archaic,” says Clarke.
Farther down the road
Since the spate of domestic violence-related deaths from 2008-2013, Buncombe County has experienced no such homicides in 2014 and 2015, according to April Burgess-Johnson, Helpmate’s current executive director. However, abuse continues to be an issue, she says, noting that from July 2015-June 2016, her organization responded to 2,890 crisis calls and provided shelter to 144 adults, which included 143 women and one transgendered person, and 81 children. And those are just the ones who reached out for help, Burgess-Johnson adds.
While it might seem counterintuitive, there are reasons victims don’t seek to escape abusive relationships. “Often the victim has been intimidated and threatened to the point where she literally fears for her life if she tells,” Burgess-Johnson says. “One common tactic is for abusers to isolate their victims physically and emotionally, effectively cutting the victim off from all avenues of support.” A surprising number of abusers are prominent members of the community, she notes. “The victim fears not only not being believed, but also destroying the career of the partner she loves. Frequently, the income of the abuser is the only financial support a mother has for her children.”
Unreported abuse is a problem, says Jim Barrett, executive director of Asheville-based nonprofit Pisgah Legal Services, which works to mitigate economic barriers that can keep victims in abusive relationships. “The reason [victims] don’t get help earlier is because it’s gradual. It might start with psychological abuse and control, move into threats and then move into something more serious. We’re trying to intervene earlier in the cycle, before it gets physically violent,” Barrett says.
Barrett’s agency keeps busy helping about 5,000 abuse victims each year. “My impression is that it’s pretty bad everywhere in North Carolina. Where you have lower education [or] economic distress, I think that puts more pressure on families and partnerships,” Barrett says.
However, Barrett, who’s been with Pisgah Legal Services since 1983, has also seen attitudinal changes in Buncombe and surrounding counties. “We definitely have had to work on the awareness front. But recently, the leaders of local law enforcement have been very good to train their staff,” he says. Regular training is crucial, he adds. “The people who work in law enforcement reflect the population at large, and there’s all kinds of people that have those jobs. Some of them are maybe sexist, biased, racist or whatever. It’s something you have to constantly train on.”
Partner abuse also costs taxpayers, says Klipp Nicholson. “When we look at the financial cost of these incidents, it’s an estimated $6.7 million a year. That’s looking at law enforcement response, incarceration, the medical care, the long-term mental health impacts,” she says.
Under one roof
The goal of the FJC is to expedite the process of providing victims with the multitude of resources they will need — a process that, in the past, could involve a victim’s traveling to as many as seven different agencies and having to repeatedly bear witness to harrowing accounts of abuse and trauma. Klipp Nicholson also hopes its presence will bring more abuse victims out of the shadows.
“At the FJC, a survivor of domestic violence or sexual assault has the convenience of coming to one building to access most of the resources she may need. She tells her story one time and then can see advocates, attorneys, counselors, law enforcement, social workers, a forensic nurse and case managers all at the same place. For the professionals, it is a way to network among one another, build relationships for stronger advocacy and [offer] more efficient help for our clients. Our convenient location at the courthouse will also make it easier for clients to access services,” Burgess-Johnson says.
Barrett also believes the conglomeration of services will foster an environment of collaboration. For example, he says, “There’s a relatively new law that a landlord has to allow the victim of abuse to change the locks. Well, who knows that? Nobody knows that. That little bit of information might allow you to have stable housing versus having to give up your lease and look for housing in this tight market.” Barret believes the FJC will foster a cross-pollination among organizations, making each more aware of the range of services, expertise and resources that the various agencies bring to the table.
Meantime, law enforcement is also touting the benefits of advocacy support. “Over the years, investigators supporting the survivors of domestic and sexual violence, while building prosecutable cases, have had countless experiences where the investigation has benefited from the assistance of an advocacy group,” says Asheville Police Department Sgt. Joe Silberman. “These partnerships have not changed the role of the investigator, but reinforced it, allowing the detective or officer to fully concentrate on their role as part of a process that is aimed not at statistics associated with closing a victim’s case, but the human aspect of providing the best outcome for a survivor possible. The support of this new community has already seen successes beyond what had been previously possible,” Silberman says.
Von Brock reflects on how far the community has come in erasing the taboo of exposing abuse. “One of the most significant aspects is the fact [the FJC] is so visible and public. In the ’70s, people didn’t want to talk about abuse, and certainly didn’t want to acknowledge it. We now have a community stepping up in a big way and saying publicly, ‘We’re going to make sure this community is safe for people.’”
Clarke says the FJC displays a spirit of cooperation that is “promising and delightful.” She, too, wishes it could have arrived sooner, citing, “This is really the model we were looking for 25 to 30 years ago. It’s taken a whole lot of time to get where it is, but it’s a great thing.”