JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – The site coordinator of Washington County’s newly formed Family Justice Center says the organization is committed to ensuring domestic violence victims make their own decisions about if and when they want to prosecute cases.
“When they walk in here we want to make sure that they understand that everything here is based off of their choice and their guidance,” Heather Brack said. “Ultimately, that choice is of that individual as to who they want to see, who they don’t want to see and who they might want to see later.”
Our Community Watchdog investigation discovered prosecutors haven’t always given victims the choice to chart their own course. We found more than a dozen cases where prosecutors asked judges to jail domestic violence victims for disobeying subpoenas. We also discovered the grant that funds the prosecution of those cases prohibits the First Judicial District Attorney General’s Office from forcing victims to testify.
Those discoveries have prompted ongoing conversations across the state about how to move forward. The Family Justice Center is a key player in those discussions. The one-stop shop provides every service a victim of domestic or sexual violence may need, including emergency shelter, contact with the police and sheriff’s departments and a direct line with prosecutors. All of those services are free of charge, don’t require appointments and perhaps most important, include absolutely no pressure.
“It’s a very traumatic time in their lives,” Brack said. “We generally ask people to navigate a very confusing system during a traumatic time, so we want to be able to take that burden off of that victim.
All of those services didn’t exist in this one location prior to most of the domestic violence victims going to jail. The Family Justice Center, which opened in July, promises to put victim safety first, even more so now that we’ve discovered the court system has let some victims down. Brack says she wasn’t aware victims were going to jail to this extent.
“Do you think things improve from here?” we asked her.
“Absolutely, things improve from here,” Brack said. “I absolutely do think that we’ve had very good conversations and we will continue to have very good conversations. All of the partners will continue to meet on a regular basis just to make sure we are accountable to our victims and ourselves to make sure that we are working best within our system.”
Deborah Yeomans-Barton says the issue we uncovered highlights just how uninformed much of the public is about domestic violence. The Legal Aid of East Tennessee managing attorney hopes this situation opens people’s eyes, because she says domestic violence victims are different than any other kind of victim in a criminal case and she argues the system should treat them differently as a result.
“I still hear people say, ‘Why doesn’t she leave?’ and we still as a society want to place the burden on the victim,” she said. “We never ask, ‘Why is he abusing? What are we going to do about him?’ It takes a woman an average of seven times to leave for good, if she ever leaves, and of course, statistics show she’s in the most danger when she does try to leave.”
It’s a complex, delicate situation that Brack and others think will get the best results, more prosecutions and improved victim safety, when that process starts at the Family Justice Center.
“Maybe if they come in and we focus on their immediate safety, which is the number one thing, if they see how these processes work together and if they see these individuals working together under one roof, maybe they will eventually say, ‘Okay, I want to prosecute or I want to talk to a police officer today and maybe they wouldn’t have done that if they didn’t see that overall our system is working together.'”
The Family Justice Center is located at 196 Montgomery Street in Johnson City. The phone number is (423) 722-3720. A $240,000 grant funded its creation. It is the first Family Justice Center in the region. District Attorney Tony Clark is among those who helped create the center. He also sits on the board of directors.
Sullivan County also secured grant money to open a Family Justice Center. That location is expected to open in 2018 at the latest.
Copyright WJHL 2016. All rights reserved.