In a Community Awareness Forum, Public Safety Coordinator Dr. Paul Smith said the city of Chattanooga hopes to have a fully-functional Family Justice Center by June 30, 2015. He said the center would be a "one stop shop" where victims of domestic violence would not only be able to get psychological help, but also legal and financial help.
He said, "There's an absolute need for a Family Justice Center in Hamilton County," saying the facility would also provide services to children of victims.
He continued, "This is a place where everyone can go and know that someone is going to hear what they have to say."
In his presentation, he showed the audience several sobering statistics. In the United States, one out of four women will become a victim of domestic violence, and currently, a woman is assaulted every nine seconds. The state of Tennessee also has the fifth highest number of women murdered each year.
Sessions Court Judges Christie Mahn Sell and Gary Starnes were among members of panel selected to answer questions about the project and to help get the public involved.
Judge Sell, who was a family attorney for 12 years before become a judge, said, "The more you learn about domestic violence, the more you realize it really trickles through our community." Victims of domestic violence outnumber victims of gang violence 55 to one.
Judge Sell helped establish Hamilton County's Domestic Violence Court. Having a time period each week allotted to only domestic violence cases allows the victims to stay in another room where they do not have to see the defendant until their case is ready to be presented.
Judge Starnes pointed out that while the court must remain neutral, this creates a safer environment without advocating one person's side over another.
Both he and Judge Sell described Domestic Violence Court as a "first step." Judge Starnes said a Family Justice Center would also help victims who were afraid to prosecute their abuser. He said, in his experience, most victims have three common fears holding them back: being cut off financially, losing their children, and being unable to pay for a lawyer.
He said, "If you have a Family Justice Center, the problem cures itself. You take care of those initial concerns and their fears, and you'll be able to do a lot."
Another member of the panel and a victim of domestic violence herself at one point in her life, Kate Murray, agreed with Judge Starnes statements. She said she was in an abusive marriage and her husband had convinced her she had no education or job skills. She said she had no idea how she would support herself and two children on her own.
However, she said when her daughter witnessed her abuse one night, she knew she had to leave. She said even though her family did not support her and blamed her for her situation, she did not want her children to have the same life.
Sandra Hollett, CEO of the Partnership for Family, Children, and Adults, said, "Children who witness domestic violence have two pathways unless there's a serious intervention: they will either become future victims or future abusers."
Judge Sell also told the audience, "The bulk of our community does not understand what domestic violence is." She said, "We have to teach this to our young people, to our high schoolers," pointing out that discussing healthy relationships should not be put off until a young person started to date.
She continued, "A lot of our leaders are older white men who have either never been in that situation or don't have family that has been in that situation. It's still too easy to say 'It's not my problem.' We have to talk to our leaders, get them to understand what domestic violence is."
She said, "A lot of people have gone through the system and dealt with a judge, a DA, or an attorney who did not understand, and they were further victimized."
Judge Starnes agreed and urged women in the community to use their political voice to support projects like the Family Justice Center. He said whether or they realize it, as 55 percent of voters, women have a strong political voice.
At the end of the presentation, a woman in the audience spoke up, saying she had just recently left a husband who had regularly beaten her.
She said, "I had no idea there was so much help out there. I took many, many beatings to try to hold on to what I thought was a family...The last time I went to court, I was absolutely terrified standing next to the defendant. I think that this is a wonderful, wonderful idea. There are many women who have no idea of the resources that are in Chattanooga."
The panel will hold another public forum on April 10 at the Brainerd Recreation Center at 6 p.m.