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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 2, 2010

1-stop center for abuse victims a 'done deal'


By Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Juliet Lighter, a former Miss Hawai'i who survived a violent, abusive relationship with a boyfriend a decade ago, thinks the city's planned family justice center is desperately needed.

The center would house core services so domestic violence victims can go to one place instead of the multiple locations they must navigate now to seek assistance.

"It would be a huge help," said Lighter, who runs a nonprofit aimed at educating teenagers and young women about domestic violence.

Honolulu is a step closer to getting the center after the city recently secured nearly $400,000 in federal grant money to plan the facility, purchase equipment, conduct training and pay for rent.

City prosecutor Peter Carlisle, whose office obtained the grants and is coordinating planning efforts, said he expects the site to open within 24 months. "It's a done deal," he said.

Toward that end, the two top executives with the National Family Justice Center Alliance in San Diego will be in Honolulu this month to formally begin the strategic planning for the center. They have a contract with the city to help launch the project.

Decisions still must be made on where the center will be on O'ahu, what services it will offer, how it will operate and other such matters.

NEEDS OF COMMUNITY

But those decisions, planners say, can't be made without feedback from domestic violence survivors, agencies involved in helping them and others in the community. The planning meetings are scheduled for May 11 and 12 at the state Capitol.

Although about 60 centers operate nationally, each is run differently based on the needs of the community it serves, and Honolulu's must be tailored to what works best here, according to Casey Gwinn, president of the San Diego-based alliance.

The need is great in Hawai'i because little progress has been made in curtailing a serious domestic violence problem, and centers elsewhere have produced positive results, proponents say.

Hawai'i is one of only a few states in which justice centers, supported by the federal government as a "best practice," are not already operating or under development, according to the alliance.

"This is phenomenal news," domestic violence survivor and advocate Dara Carlin said of the planned facility.

Currently, survivors "can literally spend all day driving from place to place just to make sure the services are coordinated," Carlin said. "It can be very frustrating."

The difficulty in navigating the system and a general dissatisfaction with outcomes of prosecuted cases are major reasons so many battered women have lost faith in Hawai'i's criminal justice system, Carlin and others say.

Partly reflecting that lack of faith, domestic abuse calls to police plunged by nearly two-thirds over the past decade, an Advertiser series disclosed in 2008. The series also revealed that Hawai'i frequently tops the annual national average for domestic-violence murders per capita.

The series helped raise public awareness and was instrumental in getting justice-center plans, which have been discussed off and on for the past 10 years, beyond the talking stage, according to local advocates and Gwinn, who has been involved with the decadelong discussions.

Gwinn and Gael Strack, chief executive of the alliance, will be in Honolulu for the planning meetings, which will include holding focus groups with domestic violence survivors.

"We're looking forward to what Honolulu can come up with," Strack said.

MULTIPLE AGENCIES

The idea behind the centers is to house representatives from multiple agencies, such as police, counseling groups and treatment programs, under one roof. Salaries for those representatives still would be covered by their employers, not the center, though the city is seeking a grant to pay for a director.

Organizers also envision using existing office space, instead of building new offices, to locate the O'ahu complex.

Depending on what agencies are housed there, a battered woman at a single visit might be able to file a restraining order against her alleged abuser, talk to police, get counseling and start developing a safety plan to escape the abuse.

But one of the challenges in forming a successful program would be getting the various agencies to buy into the concept, which some could view as encroaching on their turf, proponents say.

Another would be to ensure that the center isn't perceived as merely an arm of law enforcement, they say. Abused women might be reluctant to seek help there if it's seen as such.

"They might look at it as just another extension of government and not community driven," said Ed Flores, executive director of Ala Kuola, a nonprofit agency that helps victims file requests for restraining orders. Flores supports the concept of a justice center.

Avis Kalama, executive director of the Windward Spouse Abuse Shelter, acknowledged that some domestic violence agencies might be reluctant to participate, given their tendency to work independently. But she hopes the center succeeds for the victims' sake.

"I think it would be an incredible feat to pull so many agency resources together," Kalama said. "We're so used to being independent of each other. This is going to take a lot of work, a lot of money, a lot of resources. Everyone's going to have to play well together."