“Father over mother, mother over me and me over the cat,” said the boy.
Police, food vouchers and child therapy in the same building.
Who: Family Justice Centre
What: Has gathered all forms of support for victims of violence in close relationships under one roof: a One Stop Shop.
“He beat me again. The first time was four years ago, when I was home with my new-born daughter. He beat me while I was breastfeeding, and he was going to throw me out. He hurt me. I called the police. When they came, I just wanted them to take him away, but they insisted I wrote a police report. So I did. I got a protection order for a year, but after four months I said I didn’t need it anymore and we moved back together. For the sake of the children. Now it’s started all over again. Most of the time he shouts and argues; he only hits me occasionally, but if I sleep in the bedroom he rapes me. I’ve got the papers for a protection order, and he saw them in my bag this morning. He locked me in the house. I had to threaten him with the police before he would let me out. Now I’m scared to go home. You can’t live with someone who threatens to beat you all the time.”
The victim’s assistant asks some more questions:
“What do you want help with?”
“I want to get a protection order against him.”
“Do you need him so you can stay in the US?”
“No, I’ve got my own green card.”
“How are you managing financially?”
“The only thing I want is to live in peace in my house with my children. If I have that, then we’ll manage. I’ve got a job.”
“Would you like counselling?”
“How old are your children?”
“Eleven and six. The youngest is only four, but I’ve sent her back to Kamerun.”
“Would you like the children to talk to someone too?”
This introductory conversation finishes at quarter past three. The court closes at four. The victim’s assistant does not have much time. With the help of a video camera – currently a trial project – Hillary is put in touch with a judge, who issues a three-day protection order. After the three days she will have to go to court. The first protection order can be issued on the basis of the information from the woman, in the civil court, but it cannot be made permanent until the man has had a chance to give his side of the story.
In the past, a woman who was trying to escape violence had to visit up to 10-15 different institutions to get her life in order.
The Family Justice Centre offers various forms of support: contact with the police, women’s shelters and social services; legal aid; counselling; treatment programmes for abusers; food vouchers; bus tickets, and children’s therapy – most of them under the same roof.
“In the past, a woman who was trying to escape violence had to visit up to 10-15 different institutions to get her life in order,” says Christina Miles, director of the Family Violence Division. “She might have had five-six children, no money, nowhere to live …… so being made to run around in the system, wait, and then tell the same story over and over again – no wonder so many women go back to the man. Sometimes it feels like a better option.”
The judge grants Hillary her protection order. The sheriff, who is also based at the Family Justice Centre, drives out and delivers the court order to her husband, who is given 15 minutes to leave the home. So far, the case is being handled as a civil case, but if he violates the court order and comes back, Hillary can call the police, who will arrest him.
Hillary goes home to her children. If she had had them with her, they would have been able to play in the well-equipped play room. At the moment, the child therapy takes place in a different building, but soon everything will be gathered on the same premises. The fact that everything is in one place means a lot to the victims of violence who come here.
So far 2,400 victims of violence have received help, in 140 different languages.
“It means you and your children can plan for the next step, in peace and quiet – and safety,” says Christina Miles. “A woman on the run has many needs. Some days we manage to help her with up to ten different things. In the past, everything we did used to take at least a day.”
It is 18 months since the Family Justice Centre opened. So far 2,400 victims of violence have received help, in 140 different languages. The county pays for the basics – the co-workers’ salaries, basic furnishings, rent; but they rely on voluntary contributions for all the non-essentials. A telecom company, for example, pays for the video equipment which allows them to communicate with the courts, and a Christian congregation supplies the kitchen with all the food. Several of the organisations which offer legal aid are voluntary, and the lawyers’ fees are paid privately.
Christina Miles is convinced that the Family Justice Centre has led to more abusers being convicted in Montgomery County, and, indeed, to crime levels as a whole falling.
“More women have the strength to stand by their police report and we’re getting better at gathering proof. We can offer women support throughout the entire process,” she says.
Maternal deaths: 16 deaths per l00,000 births
Number of children/woman: 2.06
Abortion legislation: Right to abortion. Some states have regulations making certain information to pregnant women mandatory, including the size and appearance of the foetus.
Law against rape within marriage: Yes
Violence against women in close relationships: one woman in six has been subjected to sexual violence.