PRESS DEMOCRAT, BY LORI A. CARTER
October 7, 2021 —
Dozens of brightly colored umbrellas bobbed in the cool air above a crowd of social service and law enforcement workers gathered Wednesday at the Family Justice Center of Sonoma County.
They were suspended there not for any hint of rain in the fall evening, but to convey their sense of protection and shelter for abuse victims.
“This is a place they are safe. This is a place they are protected. And this is a place they are heard,” said the center’s executive director, Marsha Lucien.
Lucien and other “justice partners” were celebrating a decade of listening to, helping and protecting targets of domestic abuse, elder abuse, sexual abuse and child abuse for the Mendocino Avenue center.
The Family Justice Center, a unique one-stop-shop for survivors, opened in October 2011, offering for the first time in the region an all-encompassing variety of social services, law enforcement and legal resources for those fleeing abuse, as well as their supporters.
Its services are free, confidential, safe, bilingual and multi-cultural.
Lucien is fairly new to the center, hired in December, and brings with her a resume of nonprofit and law enforcement work that fit perfectly with what board members were looking for in a new leader to take the center into its second decade.
She helms a center that takes calls from abuse survivors, triages them and connects them to resources they may need — like police, legal aid, immigration services, clothes and toiletries they may need if they fled with no belongings and even veterinary help for their animals.
“Prior to having this, a victim would call us, then drive to Legal Aid, drive to Verity, drive to Catholic Charities for immigration help,” said Madeleine Keegan O’Connell, chief executive of the YWCA Sonoma County, one of the Justice Center’s founding partners. “And if you’re a victim of violence and toting kids around, you feel like giving up.”
“That’s why this place is such a godsend,” said Jessica Nunn Provost, director of domestic violence services for the YMCA.
YWCA workers at the center — and those who answer the 24-hour crisis phone line — act as a quarterback, Keegan O’Connell said, figuring out what services a person needs and linking them with providers who are just in another room.
A sexual assault victim, for example, can speak with a counselor, have a forensic exam taken, give a statement for police and begin the move into safe housing — all at the center.
Such a setup helps minimize retraumatizing those who are already at perhaps the most vulnerable position they’ve ever been in.
“They don’t have to tell their story again and again,” said Caroline Fowler, president of the center’s board and a former Santa Rosa city attorney.
The center also sponsors Camp Hope, getaway trips for kids who’ve had violence in their homes. There, they have “normal childhood experiences with kids who have similar histories,” she said, where they learn they’re not alone and that there is hope for a more peaceful future.
Lucien echoed that sentiment in her remarks to those gathered Wednesday.
“You are not alone,” is the justice center’s overarching message, she said, and “to restore hope for people who’ve lost it on life’s journey.”
Even with the closure of the center last year because of COVID-19, it saw more than 30% more calls than average. Sheltering in place wasn’t safe for many people, she said, and working from home added new stresses and strains.
In its decade of operation, the justice center has assisted more than 20,000 families, Lucien said.
In the next few years, she said the center aims to increase its resources, increase its reach to victims and strengthen the support it offers.
You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @loriacarter.