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Local Politicians Lead Effort To Open Domestic Violence Center

Tuesday May 18, 2004

Services for victims of domestic violence exist in various agencies throughout Alameda County, and that is part of the problem, according to representatives from several local social service organizations. Trying to piece those services together to serve a domestic violence victim can be a time consuming and convoluted process. 

That’s why, with the help of Assemblywoman Loni Hancock and County Commissioner Alice Lai-Bitker, Alameda County may soon open a comprehensive family justice center where victims will have access to all the services they need under one roof. 

“It’s unimaginable what people have to go through to get to access to the services we will provide,” said Nancy O’Malley, the chief assistant District Attorney for Alameda county, and one of several county representatives working on the project.  

Alameda county is currently one of 12 finalists waiting to hear if they will receive a $1.5 million grant from the federal Department of Justice to set up the family center. As part of new federal legislation, the grants are meant to fund centers that house all of the various government, law enforcement and social service programs that victims need, instead of forcing them to visit multiple agencies located all over the county.  

At the same time, both Hancock and Lai-Bitker say they want to insure that regardless of whether the county receives the grant, victims will have a more coordinated approach.  

Last week, Hancock introduced legislation originally written by Lai-Bitker that would increase funding for oversight and coordination of domestic violence prevention, intervention, and prosecution efforts. Based on a model already used in Contra Costa county, the law—if passed—would allow the Board of Supervisors in Alameda and Solano counties to increase the fees for copies of marriage, birth and death records by up to $2, generating up to $200,000 a year. 

How that potential $200,000 is spent depends upon the federal grant. If Alameda County wins the federal grant, the increased-fee money would create an operation budget for the combined center. If the federal grant—and, therefore, the combined center—doesn’t materialize, the increased-fee money would go towards facilitating and coordinating existing services. 

“This [increased fee state] bill is a response to what is an epidemic of domestic violence really all over the state,” said Hancock. “We know so much about domestic violence that we really should be able to get a coordinated plan to ensure that no victim is left without resources.” 

According to O’Malley from the district attorney’s office, victims of domestic violence currently have to navigate a tangled web of government services to even start the process towards recovery. During the process of filing charges and getting a restraining order, victims have to go back and forth between two different law enforcement agencies and up to three different court systems. Even if the process runs smoothly, all the filing requires a mountain of complicated and time-consuming paperwork.  

In the meantime, O’Malley said, a victim has to worry about finding a new house and possibly a new job. A victim with children has to manage child care as well. In the meantime, the victim must find social services to get counseling for themselves and their children, part of what O’Malley says is a process surmountable only by a genius “with nothing but time on their hands.” 

If there is an error in any part of the process, the victim is sometimes forced to re-navigate the entire system. At the proposed center, the victim could walk down the hall, get the error taken care of, and be done. 

A coordinated system is also key to breaking the cycle of violence, according to Julia Arno, the executive director of the Family Violence Law Center in Oakland. Instead of getting stuck part way and falling back into the situation the victim is trying to escape, comprehensive care insures she can move on. 

“It’s the best way to close the system gaps,” Arno said. “It would be huge if we could get this grant. There is so much good we could do if we could consolidate.”  

In Berkeley, representatives from social services agencies say there is a steady need for services to deal with domestic violence. Unfortunately, said boona cheema, Berkeley does not have any centers that deal exclusively with domestic violence, forcing most people in need to look for services in Oakland or at other social services in Berkeley. Cheema is the executive director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), an organization that combats poverty and homelessness. 

Cheema said around seven percent of the people BOSS helps are domestic violence victims.  

“A lot of us who are trying to provide services to woman who have domestic violence issues, we are not trained, we are doing this because they are showing up in our programs,” she said. When someone shows up, she said service providers try and get them into a domestic violence center, “but if every site is full, we take that person in and try to do the best we can.” 

Cheema said a combined family center would ease the overflow and backlog of victims trying to get services and ensure that they get the proper treatment at the proper facilities.  

She said several Berkeley groups came together when Shirley Dean was mayor of Berkeley to try to create a domestic violence safe house, but were continually shot down by neighbors at two different locations. 

According to Arno from the Family Violence Law Center, however, her organization does send out advocates along with the Berkeley police when they respond to any domestic violence calls. 

O’Malley from the district attorney’s office said Alameda County already had one of their site visits from the grant coordinators and are just waiting to hear the final decision. The county already picked out a building in downtown Oakland that could house the facility.