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The Honolulu Advertiser
Updated at 4:10 p.m., Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Justice center concept holds promise for Isles

Victims of domestic violence often suffer in silence and isolation: The pathway to safety and a new life can seem an endless series of obstacles.

A national movement is providing better support to these people, and Hawai'i should begin plans for a similar program here. That movement is the establishment of "family justice centers," a one-stop complex housing various law-enforcement and social service agencies.

Bringing them together under one roof certainly clears a path for women who otherwise need to take multiple absences from work and find child care. Even more burdensome, they must navigate their way through a bewildering array of services without coordinated help. That's discouraging to a person who needs no further discouragement.

But the value of a family justice center goes beyond personal logistics, said Casey Gwinn, president of the National Family Justice Center Alliance. It creates a cocoon of support for women, said Gwinn, who spearheaded the 2002 opening of a center in San Diego.

The concern raised by some professionals in Hawai'i and other states contemplating such institutions is that creating centers diverts resources already in short supply.

This, Gwinn said, hasn't been borne out by the experience in 45 jurisdictions nationally that have family justice centers, a roster that is soon to double in length with projects that are in the works. The idea, he said, should be simply to "co-locate" employees of the various agencies in one complex, rather than create a new bureaucracy that duplicates services.

Research also shows that offering protective services to victims on the front end also avoids greater social costs that arise when violent relationships are ignored. One 2004 San Diego study estimated that the criminal justice system spent $2.4 million on one domestic-violence homicide.

So money is being spent, just on the tragic and more costly end, not intervention.

There are ways to begin the planning that are critical but don't cost much. The alliance assists with focus groups to gain ideas on what kind of center would best serve this community.

In Hawai'i, where cultural concerns should guide plans on how to fill victims' needs, that's a good idea. And there may be ways to cut costs further, by locating the center in existing facilities.

It would send a welcome message to victims that the state cares enough to start down the path toward more effective, humane service.