By Laura Maggi
When the Family Justice Center opened in 2007, the idea was simple: locate all the services a victim of domestic violence might need under one roof.
Semeko Cox, right, a domestic violence counselor, and Misty Miller-Frye, center, an interdiction specialist, discuss a domestic survivor's case at the Family Justice Center in New Orleans in October.
Since then, the fledgling center has helped protect more than 2,000 abuse victims and their children by giving them immediate access to police, legal advocates, sexual abuse experts and counselors. Organizers have won national praise, even landing a visit to the White House.
Now, the center's proponents are asking Mayor Mitch Landrieu for help in making the project a permanent fixture in New Orleans.
Created with a $3 million federal grant, the center is modeled after a similar facility in San Diego, and was the 16th of its kind to open in the nation.
But organizers say the center has outgrown its original location at 830 Julia St. -- spilling over into a second building -- and desperately needs a permanent facility large enough to accommodate all the nonprofits and criminal justice agencies that deal with abuse cases. They also want to reduce the center's reliance on federal funds by getting the city to chip in.
Perhaps most critically, abuse experts are working with Police Chief Ronal Serpas to help ensure the Police Department does a better job of investigating domestic violence. A scathing report issued last week by the U.S. Department of Justice cited the poor quality of such investigations.
"We are at a really critical juncture," said Casey Gwinn, president of the National Family Justice Center Alliance. "The primary focus of the whole thing seems so simple, putting all the services under one roof. But it is not so easy in practice."
Mary Claire Landry, director of the Catholic Charities' domestic violence program and head of the local center, said city officials have pledged to help the group find a building or land for a new facility. In other cities, private donors typically help pay for any construction or renovation costs, and local governments maintain the buildings, said Gwinn, a former San Diego city attorney who helped establish the first family justice center in 2002.
Deputy Mayor Jerry Sneed, who oversees the public safety agencies, said the city is "committed to finding a suitable location/facility." The administration also believes that the center will eventually require additional public and private support, he said.
The center is based on the belief that victims -- who typically need assistance in many areas to escape their abusers -- should be able to access all the services they need in one place.
Once victims arrive at the New Orleans center, their needs are assessed. Whether they need a restraining order against the batterer, child care, counseling, legal representation or temporary housing, a representative of the appropriate agency will come to their aid.
The district attorney's domestic violence unit is housed in the building, and civil legal services are provided by Southeast Louisiana Legal Services and the Tulane Law Clinic. A nearby annex also houses social service agencies, including Crescent House Healing and Empowerment Center and Project Save.
But central to the fight to end family violence is effective police work. In its report, issued March 17, the Justice Department lambasted the department's domestic violence investigations, saying detectives don't do follow-up interviews and fail to talk to key witnesses, including the children of abuse victims.
To improve investigations, the report recommended the NOPD work with the Family Justice Center to develop a domestic violence protocol, which will help guide officers on how to protect themselves and conduct quality probes.
Serpas met Wednesday with local and national advocates, including Gwinn, to begin the process.
"We are definitely working with them right now to figure out exactly what it means for us. We are very supportive of where they are going," Serpas said. "My family has had two domestic-violence deaths. I'm pretty familiar with the pain of that crime and what we need to do to make sure we have best practices."
Compounding problems, the Justice Department report and a review by Gwinn's organization found that police officers are often failing to direct domestic violence victims to the center designed to help them.
Landry said the center is hoping to increase referrals, which they believe will help even those victims whose cases will not be prosecuted in criminal court. She noted that a recent survey of 124 cases found that applicants represented by an attorney were about twice as likely to receive some kind of legal protection as those who weren't. Roughly two-thirds of those with lawyers got protective orders or injunctions, compared with one-third of those who represented themselves.
Laura Maggi can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3316.