The Days After

MONROE - When Tammie Slawson thinks about the future, she becomes giddy, almost beside herself. In less than a month, Slawson will watch as the doors to Ouachita Parish's $1.2 million Family Justice Center open to the public.

A few weeks has never seemed like such a long time.

Soon, victims of domestic violence or sexual assault in Ouachita Parish will have everything they need "under one roof," said Slawson, director of the center.

At the Family Justice Center, a victim will have immediate access to domestic violence units from both the Ouachita Sheriff's Office and the Monroe Police Department.

Also on hand will be an assistant district attorney, a victim's assistance coordinator who can help with getting protective orders, a representative from legal services and advocates who offer a variety of services such as counseling and finding transitional housing.

"It puts the survivor's perspective up front," Slawson said. "The most important thing is the way the survivors view the services. That's the most important thing to us."

Coming together
The center will be one of 15 in the nation funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. For Ouachita, it's the culmination of 16 years of planning, collaborating, negotiating and hoping.

In Lafayette, many who deal with domestic violence daily say they would like to see a similar coordination of effort, but it's a long way off.

Here in Lafayette, the three law enforcement agencies that deal with domestic violence - the City Marshals, the Sheriff's Office and the Police Department - are in separate buildings downtown. District attorneys work on the sixth floor of the parish courthouse. On the city side, the prosecutor's office is located a few streets over from the city court; however, both city prosecutors work mainly out of private offices. Counseling and legal services for victims are sprinkled among various agencies throughout Lafayette.

For victims, navigating the maze of services can be difficult, which is why the first Family Justice Center was built.

Collaboration shows results
It all started in San Diego.

For years, the California city faced an average annual domestic death toll of more than 30 people. In response, decision makers and advocates came together to form a domestic violence council.

It took nearly a decade and the right combination of leadership, but in 2002, it all came together.

In just three years of operation, the San Diego Family Justice Center has garnered national and international acclaim for its single-minded goal of helping victims of domestic violence.

It was an effort to let them know that they "have an avenue, have a place, have someone they can go to that will listen, help them and be there to help them through it," said Sgt. Robert Keetch, operations manager for the San Diego center.

Now, nearly everyone involved in domestic violence issues in San Diego is an arm's length away from one another.

The result of this cooperation has been a dramatic reduction in domestic homicides each year, Keetch said.

"The year just before we were open, we were at 15," he said. "We went down to nine last year. This year, it's one."

A single domestic homicide in a city of more than 1.4 million - but Keetch said San Diego is not stopping there.

"Our goal is to be the first major city in the United States to have zero homicides related to domestic violence. It's difficult to do, but it takes a coordinated effort from everybody," he said.

How they did it
Bridgit Plumbar, president of the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office Violence Against Women Task Force, was on vacation in San Diego a year and a half ago, and made it a point to tour the Family Justice Center.

She said through talking to people at the center, she "found out the struggles that they had and the length of time that it took for them to build the collaboration."

And Keetch said that's the hardest thing to do.

"You can't just build a family justice center and then within a year see a great reduction in homicide-related domestic violence issues. It takes years and years of working together as a team to get to where we are," he said.

It takes the community coming together and recognizing that it's not just the police department's job or the advocates' or the community's, he said.

"It's all those different partners working together to be part of a solution and then getting to the point where you coordinate your services. It's a step-by-step process," he said.

Finding focus
The Sheriff's Office task force is one of the main ways the various agencies working with domestic violence in Lafayette communicate.

To Plumbar, the task force is, first and foremost, about educating the public on both the presence of violence in the communities and the availability of agencies attempting to address it.

Members of law enforcement and judges are on the task force. Various agencies that deal with domestic violence send representatives. But not everyone attends the monthly meeting because of scheduling conflicts, Plumbar said.

And it lacks the presence of the city's real decision makers, said Linda Boudreaux, who sits on the board.

"I think that we have struggled to find a focus with that group," said Boudreaux, who is also the director of The Extra Mile, a nonprofit that oversees the Louisiana Violence Prevention Alliance.

There is a need for coordination among agencies, said Sachida Raman, an attorney who sits on the boards of both the Sheriff's Office task force and the Louisiana Violence Prevention Alliance.

"The various task forces that may be duplicative - while all working in good faith - need to pool their resources and act in unison," Raman said.

Plumbar said she believes the task force is working but needs support from the community. She said it takes time to build relationships between agencies.

"I think that everybody is grabbing a piece of the problem and addressing it. I don't see anything wrong with it. That's just the way it's happening right now," she said.

The need for a leader
In both Monroe and San Diego, officials said the collaboration among agencies didn't occur overnight.

"It's going to take a lot of time to develop the relationships between all these agencies before you can actually co-locate on one site," he said, because various barriers have to be broken down.

"The way you address those is by working together in a common goal, putting a lot of the differences aside and finding out solutions to solve the problem," Keetch said.

But before that can happen, a leader needs to emerge, he said.

In San Diego, it was Casey Gwinn, who in 1989 as a city attorney proposed the bold plan to create a "one-stop shop" to deal with domestic violence.

In Monroe, that leader is Judy Bell, who, as president and CEO of The Wellspring - which oversees Ouachita's Family Justice Center - is the expert the leaders listen to.

It takes someone who "understands domestic violence and has some credibility with the leaders of the agencies," Slawson said.

She said when the decision makers and visionaries come together, the rest will soon follow.

"It can be done. It can be duplicated," Slawson said.