One-stop shop for domestic violence victims

by DANIELLE MURPHY

Traumatic experiences, such as domestic violence, can leave people feeling alone, lost and confused. Victims live in fear while grasping for a lifeline. When they figure out where to turn, they are forced to recount the horrors of their situation over and over again.

Utah’s first, and only, Family Justice Center provides a haven for victims of domestic violence to gain shelter while meeting with representatives of various organizations that can help their plight. This minimizes time, travel and emotional heartache for the victim as he or she relays his or her story to the organizations that can provide an escape from the fears confronted on a daily basis.

Stewart Ralphs is the executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, one of the organizations represented at the FJC. “It is important to provide services so victims of domestic violence have someone who knows the processes, so they get the protection that the law affords them,” Ralphs said.

Ralphs describes most victims as coming in as “basket cases” because of the combination of harrowing abuse situations and unfamiliarity with what to do next. Most victims are referred to the FJC by other organizations, so victims arrive without much expectation. The average victim is a 23-year-old female with several children, Ralphs said.

The staff at the FJC is trained to be empathetic and culturally sensitive. When victims arrive, they are assisted with obtaining a protective order, filing for criminal charges, obtaining proper protection for children, getting shelter and finding a job. Initial services at the FJC take between four and five hours to complete.

One of the first actions a victim goes through upon arriving at the FJC is meeting with the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake. A Legal Aid Society paralegal checks for conflicts of interest before the victim summarizes his or her situation. This allows the LAS to provide the client with specific help that best serves his or her individual needs.

Once that process is complete, the victim will meet with an LAS paralegal to prepare the protective order. When the protective order is ready, it will be filed with the sheriff and subsequently served to the individual the complaint was filed against.

The protective order is effective from the time it is served through the court hearing, which is typically two weeks later. The order stays in place for the rest of the involved parties’ lives, unless the petitioner withdraws the order.

Aside from preparing protective orders, the Legal Aid Society helps the victim devise a plan to keep him or her safe. These plans typically include notifying neighbors of the situation, keeping weapons out of the house, maintaining a packed suitcase and getting locks for all doors and windows.

“We want to make people think of steps to take to protect themselves … what is the worst case scenario and how would you respond to it?” Ralphs said.

He said the Legal Aid Society’s Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Program helps almost 3,000 people in the Salt Lake valley per year. “Domestic violence never decreases. Either society addresses the problem professionally and corrects it or the problem escalates and becomes more and more serious over time,” he said.

The Legal Aid Society has been instrumental in addressing the problem of domestic violence. It is the oldest legal aid nonprofit organization in Utah. The more recent addition of the Family Justice Center in 2007 signaled another dimension to helping victims of these horrific experiences.

Marlene Gonzalez, the executive director of the Multi-Cultural Legal Center, another organization represented at the FJC, said the Family Justice Center allows for good collaboration and it is a great tool for serving the needs of the victim.

The Family Justice Center provides representatives from the Department of Workforce Services, Division of Child & Family Services, Salt Lake Police Department, YWCA, Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, Salt Lake City Prosecutors Office and Multi-Cultural Legal Center.

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence or abuse, you can call the YWCA at (801) 537-8600 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE (7233).