Family Justice Center vision: A commitment to changing lives

After two days of strategic planning, the foundation is set toward the vision of creating a Family Justice Center that will change the way victims of abuse are assisted in Pottawatomie and Lincoln Counties.

Shawnee News-Star

Note: An in-depth look at the concept and vision of a Family Justice Center that will change the way victims of abuse are assisted while making a positive impact on families, changing lives and reducing crime.

After two days of strategic planning, the foundation is set toward the vision of creating a Family Justice Center that will change the way victims of abuse are assisted in Pottawatomie and Lincoln Counties.

District Attorney Richard Smothermon’s longtime vision for such a center began last year when Pottawatomie County commissioners funded an 18-month-long Family Justice Center Alliance study.

In deciding “what hope looks like,” Smothermon said, the concept of a such a center is to bring all types of services and agencies together under one roof — a “one-stop” shop where victims of abuse can receive the assistance they need in one safe and convenient place.

More than 40 people gathered Thursday and Friday in Shawnee to brainstorm and shape the vision to create a better future.

Smothermon, who has had the vision of how things can be versus how they are today, said the current system is set up in a way that revictimizes people when they need help the most.

A Family Justice Center in this area would change the way victims of both child and sexual abuse are assisted in an effort to make a positive change in families and the community, with intervention early on aimed as a way to reduce crimes rates.

Although there are many such Family Justice Centers around the U.S., Smothermon’s vision is to have one unlike anything now in the state of Oklahoma.

All of the ideas from the planning event will be formed into a roadmap as the process continues to evolve.

Casey Gwinn, who is the founder of the FJC concept being used in communities all over the globe, said his vision of a “one-stop shop” for services to victims of family violence first became reality in San Diego, California.

“This vision can become a reality here,” he said, complimenting the commitment and hard work of those involved in the sessions.

“It’s going to matter to a lot of kids for generations,” he said.

Gwinn said it takes people willing to commit to this project in order to see the vision becoming a reality within the next five years.

Those in law enforcement, social services, child welfare, education, community leaders and others were in attendance.

“It turned out well — a lot of people are on board,” said Shawnee Police Detective Ethan Rieves. “It’s important what we are doing here.”

Right now, victims of child abuse or domestic violence are often revictimized as they go to all the places and face all stages in the process to get help.

A child who confides in her mother about being molested by a stepfather, for example, begins a journey.

Their trip begins at a local police department to make a report, then to the Unzner Center for a sexual assault exam and forensic interview, then to Shawnee’s hospital. After that, it’s off to Project Safe for an Emergency Order of Protection and then to the courthouse to file that paperwork and appear before a judge, followed by a trip to see a counselor, not to mention a stop at the Department of Human Services.

“Somewhere between stops one and seven, they lost hope,” Smothermon said, adding that every step of the process labels the child a victim again. And when victims lose hope to complete all the steps, he said that leads to victims returning to the source of the abuse.

A Family Justice Center would provide all services in one location and would be a cheery, secure place aimed at making a difference in the lives of those impacted by such abuse, he said.

If there were a single center, the child and her mother could walk in and in one afternoon be interviewed by law enforcement, consult with DHS, get a medical exam and even testify electronically before a judge, he said, as basically all resources, from law enforcement to a prosecutor and child welfare advocates are under the same roof.

Smothermon, who wants to see a FJC with a chapel and even a courtroom in it as well, said through video testimony, a victim would never have to be in the same room with his or her accuser.

That’s not the case now, where the two have to meet in a small courtroom.

“We’ve got to break the cycle and do something different,” Smothermon said.

After watching a video showing the success of a similar center in Texas, the strategic planning group joining the effort all recited, “I’m in.”

Sheriff Mike Booth said this vision will help victims and families.

“My hat’s off to Richard Smothermon for facilitating this — I’m very proud to be a part of it,” Booth said.

District 1 Pottawatomie County Commissioner Melissa Dennis agreed.

As a county, she said they want to commit to everyone working together and making this happen, including getting the community involved.

And just like the saying that it takes a village to raise a child, Booth said everyone has to be on board for this.

“It takes a district to fix our problems,” Booth said.

Smothermon said “it’s about people and commitment,” and they already have that foundation.

With fundraising efforts on Friday helping them get started, fundraising campaigns for the FJC plan will begin in the next 60 days and will be ongoing over the next couple of years, Smothermon said.

While the cost of a FJC could be in the millions, Smothermon said it would take everyone working together to find a solution to make this happen.

Smothermon asked, “How much would you pay to save the life of a child?”

Right now, Smothermon said taxpayers are paying for prosecution and incarceration of those who perpetrate crimes and said money spent early on in the life of a child will save money for a community in the long run.

“If we can intervene, we can change the course of lives,” Smothermon said, and making that positive change will save money.

“We can pay to intervene now or pay to incarcerate later,” he said.

Rieves said hearing about a victim’s experience in the county opened a lot of eyes on how the process needs to be different here.

With one facility, those needing assistance could visit one location and have their needs met, he said, endorsing the concept and the plan.

Smothermon said the key is making victims’ lives better.

“Anything short of that means we have failed them,” he said.

“Never forget the faces of the victims — we will change lives,” Smothermon said, “all because of the people in this room.”