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SHARED VISION: As projector coordinator, Jamie Willis heads the new Greene County Justice Center, which serves survivors of domestic violence.
SBJ photo by Wes Hamilton
SHARED VISION: As projector coordinator, Jamie Willis heads the new Greene County Justice Center, which serves survivors of domestic violence.

Under One Roof: Family Justice Center unites agencies to better serve victims

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The days of domestic violence victims traveling all over Springfield to various law enforcement and nonprofit agencies to receive services, advice and shelter may be over.

That’s the intent of the organizers of the newly opened Greene County Family Justice Center on the second floor of the Greene County Judicial Courts Facility, 1010 Boonville Ave.

Jamie Willis started in July as project coordinator at the center and has been busy in preparation for the facility’s Oct. 1 ribbon cutting and open house. The center is currently funded by $500,000 in the county budget generated from a half-cent sales tax approved by voters in November 2017.

“The initial funds we received from that tax went to furnishing this area,” she said, noting her position is paid through the prosecutor’s office, which formerly occupied the roughly 3,000-square-foot space.

A total of 12 staff the center, including victim advocates from The Victim Center Inc. and Harmony House, and detectives from the Springfield Police Department and Greene County Sheriff’s Office focused on domestic violence cases. There also are representatives from Legal Services of Southern Missouri and Missouri Department of Social Services Children’s Division on-site.

“So when victims need services they don’t have to travel all around town to get everything they need,” Willis said.

She said victim advocates will conduct a needs assessment with those who visit to determine the help needed and the agencies that can provide it. Previously, victims had to transport themselves to multiple agencies and fill out paperwork and share their abuse situation at each location.

“We refined that so that when they come in here, they do one intake process and get to decide who they want to share that information with,” Willis said.

Springfield Police Department Chief Paul Williams, who is on the Greene County Family Justice Center Steering Committee, said providing a one-stop site for victims allows them the opportunity to tell their story once to officials and minimizes the chance they’ll get frustrated by an extended process and return to the abuser.

According to Springfield Police Department statistics, reported domestic assaults in the city have increased 12 percent from 2012 to 2017. Last year, there were over 2,900 domestic assaults reported to the SPD.

“Since 2012, about half of all the city’s aggravated assaults are domestic related,” Williams said, citing nearly 690 out of the roughly 1,500 aggravated assaults reported in 2017.

“That’s hundreds of people that are impacted every year.”

Brandi Bartel, another steering committee member and executive director of The Victim Center, said she’s hesitant about making predictions of how many people will make use of the center.

“Everybody else who has gone through this before have told us that once we open the doors, it’ll be almost like a floodgate,” she said.

The Victim Center helps those impacted by violent and nonviolent crimes with counseling and advocacy services, as well as a 24-hour crisis and intervention hotline. The organization served 3,800 individuals last year, with a 62 percent increase in the last five years.

There’s no singular reason, Bartel said, with her staff seeing the increase as a combination of the public’s greater awareness of criminal and societal issues and an empowerment of victims coming forward to report crimes.

Family Justice Center officials began a soft opening Sept. 4, Willis said, as officials are accepting referrals.

Starting out
Bartel and Willis credit Williams with bringing the idea of the justice center to Springfield, as the police chief was familiar with a similar facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He worked for the police department there for nearly 30 years.

An impetus for Williams was Springfield’s growing number of domestic assault cases, which led to organizing a family violence task force and the Stop the Violence Conference, held annually on the Missouri State University campus.

A family justice center in the Queen City was the next step, Williams said.

“It’s kind of been percolating for about three to four years,” he added.

He said Dan Patterson, Greene County prosecuting attorney, called him the day after the November 2017 election when the half-cent countywide general revenue sales tax passed and suggested the $500,000 it provided annually for law enforcement purposes should be used for the justice center.

“(In) less than a year, we’ve gone from, ‘This is a great idea and we’d really like to do it,’ to actually going to open and serving the citizens of Springfield and Greene County,” Williams said.

As one of the center’s collaborative partners, Bartel said The Victim Center was on board from the beginning.

“It’s almost been like a not-for-profit business incubator of sorts,” she said of the justice center. “You have all the players across the table participating in one space. It creates this awesome environment of collaboration and communication in a way that elevated the foundations we had already created.”

Springfield’s center is one of 25 nationwide affiliated with the Family Justice Center Alliance, a program of San Diego, California-based Alliance for Hope International. Willis said it’s the only such facility open in Missouri. The alliance’s focus is on creating supportive and collaborative approaches to meeting the needs of domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.

The first family violence center started in 2002 in San Diego, and during its first five years, the rate of domestic violence homicides dropped by 95 percent, according to the U.S. Office on Violence Against Women.

Of Springfield’s 14 homicides investigated in 2017, Williams said five of them involved domestic violence.

“If we can even keep one person from dying as a result of a domestic incident, that’s huge,” he said. “More importantly, it’s keeping it from getting to that point.”

Beyond temporary
Willis said the Greene County Commission is lending the space to the justice center temporarily, with the understanding the county will have to add another courtroom – possibly within three years. Officials say the justice center’s current space is a likely spot.

“The county commission has been wonderful in working with us and saying we can use this space at no cost until we figure out exactly what we need,” Willis said, adding the center currently is seeking 501(c)(3) status.

The center’s steering committee is now focused on securing a permanent location.

Much like the process that has led the various agencies to this point, Bartel said a collaborative spirit would be necessary to operate the center to make it as successful as she believes it will be.

“We all have a shared vision,” she said.

Willis agreed. “Everyone is focused on the real purpose of serving victims and doing what we need to do to make that happen.”

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