Family Justice Center meets domestic violence head-on

Eighth Judicial District Attorney General Jared Effler (left) and Scott County Family Justice Center project coordinator Christy Harness (right) share a laugh following a public forum in Huntsville on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (Ben Garrett/IH)
Eighth Judicial District Attorney General Jared Effler (left) and Scott County Family Justice Center project coordinator Christy Harness (right) share a laugh following a public forum in Huntsville on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (Ben Garrett/IH)

Perhaps it was planned, perhaps it was coincidental. Either way, the timing of the Scott County Family Justice Center’s public forum last week was fitting.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month across Tennessee and the United States. And that just happens to be the issue the Scott County FJC is striving to address.

Designed to provide the public with an in-depth picture of why the FJC is needed and what it hopes to accomplish, the Oct. 17 public hearing at the Scott County Office Building was sparsely attended. Fewer than half of the chairs in the conference room were occupied as project coordinator Christy Harness went through a slideshow that broke down the prevalence of domestic violence in Scott County.

That was perhaps symbolic of the lack of understanding on the subject of domestic violence within the local community. It’s still a taboo subject, in many ways, which doesn’t help the plight of its victims.

The empty seats didn’t deter Harness or attorney Scarlett Ellis or District Attorney General Jared Effler from breaking down the need for coordinated victim services in this rural community.

In some ways, the FJC will be modeled after the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands — at least in the sense that it will be to victims of domestic abuse as the child advocacy center is to victims of child abuse and neglect: a one-stop-shop of sorts designed to cater to those victims. And, like the CCC, the FJC will be revolutionary — at least if it accomplishes what its organizers have set out to accomplish.

“This is an exciting time for Scott County and really the entire 8th Judicial District,” said Effler as he directly compared the FJC to the Children’s Center. “History is a very good teacher. We have two things, history-wise, that show us that we are much more effective when we have services in place. I can’t even begin to describe what a better job we are doing because of the Children’s Center than we were before.”

It is a concept Effler has touched on in interviews in the past: the services offered by the Children’s Center make his prosecutors more effective at their jobs.

“That same concept can apply to the Family Justice Center,” Effler said last week.

Specifically, Effler said the FJC can coordinate with the Children’s Center and Scott County’s women’s shelter for services. And he said he anticipates the project opening the door for a prosecutor whose sole focus is on domestic violence cases — similar to the prosecutor in place specifically to specialize on DUI cases.

The concept of family justice centers is a relatively new one; the state’s oldest such center is just over a decade old. Once its goals are realized, Effler said, Scott County will be the smallest jurisdiction in Tennessee to have a FJC. That again goes back to the Children’s Center correlation. Scott County was also on the cutting edge when that center was established, and later served as a model for other rural communities looking to establish their own child advocacy centers.

“It’s something to be extremely proud of,” Effler said. “Folks in places like Scott County and the 8th Judicial District, we deserve services just as much as the folks in the big four,” a reference to the cities of Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

So what will the FJC accomplish? Harness described it like this: “We have a great assortment of services. But we don’t know how to access them all.”

Harness, who left her post as local program director for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), talked about how she used to feel that she was “banging my head against the wall” to get services for those who needed them.

“It thrills me to have an opportunity to do for our community what Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga have done for theirs,” she said.

Essentially, the completed FJC will mean that victims no longer have to go from place to place to receive services. There will be a trained navigator on site to help victims receive services. An order of protection can be applied for and received without having to go to the Circuit Court Clerk’s office. A prosecutor from the D.A.’s office will be on site to avoid the need to travel to their office. And the list goes on.

“The people they need to talk to will be able to come to them,” Harness said. “They won’t have to drive to 15 or 20 different places.”

Ellis, who last month told Scott County Commission that the grant-funded project, said last week that the FJC will request funding assistance from county government, as well as from the towns of Oneida and Huntsville. While grant funds will pay for staff, that money can’t be used for building and utility expenses. She said she hopes various entities will get on board and help fund the project, saying that domestic violence is not a problem that is unique to Huntsville or Oneida, but an issue that impacts all of Scott County without discrimination.

“In a given year, more people suffer from domestic violence than from breast cancer, ovarian cancer and colon cancer put together,” she said.

Find out more: Pick up a copy of the October 26, 2017 print edition of the Independent Herald for a one-on-one conversation with Harness about the domestic violence problem in Scott County and the need for the Family Justice Center.

Contact the Independent Herald at Follow us on Twitter, @indherald.