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Family Justice Center coordinates efforts for victims

Meredith Hooks of Mainstay and Gabriela Volkomer of Pisgah Legal Services help crime and abuse victims. Meredith Hooks of Mainstay and Gabriela Volkomer of Pisgah Legal Services help crime and abuse victims.

An emotional and volatile situation arises when a non-custodial parent meets a spouse to pick up a child for visitation. Many cities have a safe neutral place for the exchange.

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"In our county, we don't have anything like that," says Tanya Blackford, who as executive director of Mainstay knows too well the abuse that can rise from the powder keg of emotions.
Henderson County has spotty victim assistance programs, a lack of communications between agencies and no one-stop shop where victims can go to find out about their court case, get an appointment for counseling or report problems.
That may change with the opening of the county's first Family Justice Center, a cooperative project of Mainstay, the Mediation Center, Pisgah Legal Services, the Department of Social Services, law enforcement agencies and the district attorney's office. The center was formed to provide a central location for victims of interpersonal violence or abuse — a crime between two people who know each other. The crime could be physical, sexual and even financial — as in some elder abuse cases.
Blackford and the Mainstay Board of Directors have spearheaded the initiative, committing to support the office, in a small brick house at 103 S. Grove St., for a year.


Trauma intervention

People in the victim assistance business had their eyes opened three years ago when local real estate agent Vanessa Mintz was murdered.
"Vanessa Mintz's daughters will tell you the only place they could find services were all out of Buncombe County," Blackford says. "There are justice centers starting all over the state. Some have started with large grants. We're starting small and building from what we see is needed in the county."
One new service will be a Trauma Intervention Program "for family members who have experienced violent crime," Blackford says.
Meredith Hooks, a Mainstay employee who is the coordinator of the Family Justice Center, says the TIP program will respond to families most in need of emotional support and practical guidance.
"It's a network of volunteers who are on call for trauma incidents — homicides, suicides, death by vehicle, drownings," Hooks says. "Right now there's no civilian response. There's law enforcement and they have chaplains that respond but there's not that go-between. That's what the victim advocate was, with the sheriff's department."
The advocate could do anything from helping arrange pickup of children from school to feeding the family "to crime scene cleanup — things that nobody thinks about," Hooks said. "That sort of thing is missing right now from trauma events."


Seeing the whole picture

Just by lodging two or more functions in the same house, the Family Justice Center has already seen a cultural shift.
"We've already learned things about each other's agencies that we didn't know," Hooks says. She was on duty this week with her new colleague, Gabriela Volkomer, at a little house a block south of the sheriff's department and jail and two blocks south of the Grove Street Courthouse.
"More than anything it helps not only the victims of crime but it helps the agencies to work together," says Volkomer, a bilingual court advocate for Pisgah Legal Services. "Many times it was like little pieces of information that DSS had or law enforcement had or Mainstay had and we didn't communicate that well. We didn't see the whole picture. But here, working together, we'll know what's going on in each one of those agencies and how we're working together to serve that particular person."
The Justice Center is working now to provide a safe place where parents can meet to exchange a child. Mainstay, the Mediation Center and DSS work with parents, usually mothers, who have a restraining order against an abusive spouse. Even then, "the abuser many times takes that opportunity to abuse or harass or intimidate the victim," Volkomer says.
The clearinghouse will prevent the victims of interpersonal violence "from having to repeat the story over and over," she adds, to DSS, law officers, prosecutors and counselors. "It's like retraumatizing them, whereas here, we're all going to be together in one place. It won't happen as much."
The courthouse and sheriff's office can be intimidating. Just a few steps farther, the people inside the modest brick house are there to help a battered single mom or teenage victim of sexual assault.
"If you're a victim of a crime and you don't know where to go, the court system does not necessarily offer family friendly information services," Blackford says. She says the Family Justice Center is intended to make all the whole victim-assistance system more effective through better communication and coordination.
"My hope is that the center will be able to help make those programs stronger, not pull from existing resources that an agency has," Blackford says.