Family Justice Center Remains Closed, Angering Advocates

Public Safety

Center Serving Domestic Violence Victims Remains Closed, Angering Advocates

The San Diego Family Justice Center has been largely shuttered for physical consultations since the pandemic set in, and there is growing concern that the center’s problems began long before the coronavirus.

The Family Justice Center is housed in the San Diego Housing Commission building downtown. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The San Diego Family Justice Center is envisioned as a one-stop-shop providing support to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking. But that shop has been largely shuttered for physical consultations since the pandemic set in, complicating its attempt to provide a range of services and assistance to victims.

There is also growing concern among some advocates and at least one insider that the center’s problems began long before the pandemic. A police detective who worked on domestic violence cases from the center recently sent a scathing email to officials alleging a range of problems and failures. And the former elected city attorney who founded the center says it is no longer living up to its mission.

A Voice of San Diego survey of similar justice centers in California also found San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott’s decision to keep the site largely closed during the pandemic is relatively rare.

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Before mid-March, the center, run by the San Diego City Attorney’s Office with a $1.1 million annual budget and nine employees, was a place victims could come to file a police report, get help with a restraining order or access counseling, housing and other help escaping abusive relationships.

But since the lockdowns began, walk-ins – which formerly averaged 550 per month including victims and those accompanying them – are no longer allowed. Like much of the city’s workforce, justice center staff and most partners are working remotely. Face-to-face conversations have been replaced by phone, email or video meetings. Forensic exams by Palomar Health have continued onsite as needed. SDPD is taking police reports onsite by appointment only.

Both the center’s director and Elliott say the pivot to remote work has been smooth and remains the safest choice for everyone. There is no goal date to reopen onsite.

But whether the justice center is well-suited to a prolonged physical closure during an extra stressful year for those vulnerable is up for debate, and it is not the same decision several other justice centers have made elsewhere in the state.

Centers in Alameda, Contra Costa, Sacramento, Orange and Ventura counties remained open onsite or resumed onsite operations months ago with COVID-19 precautions, a Voice of San Diego survey found. Centers in Sonoma and Stanislaus counties no longer take walk-ins, but have some staff onsite and offer appointments for some onsite services.

“My sense, my conviction is that it was imperative for us to remain open,” said Mike Jump, executive director of the Ventura County Family Justice Center and a chief deputy district attorney in that county. He considered the effects of COVID-19 impacts like job loss and isolation. “When you layer that on top of the domestic violence relationship, it was critical that we were there as a relief valve for them,” he said. “They knew they had options. They weren’t just trapped.”

Over the months, Jump saw demand surge. The same staff that used to average three restraining orders per day in February now averages five to seven per day.

The Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center has also seen increased need. Through October 2020, the center had already seen 3,400 clients for the year, 1,300 more than all of 2019, center data shows.

Several centers also report seeing more severe violence among victims – a phenomenon also seen in San Diego earlier in the pandemic.

“They need us now more than ever,” said Yvette Lopez-Cooper, executive director of the San Diego Family Justice Center. “The needs are urgent. Somebody needs to remain safe that day and COVID-19 has just been a unique challenge.”

Need for the center has increased in the pandemic, Lopez-Cooper acknowledged, but she said the center hasn’t stopped for one minute.

“Across the city, victims of domestic violence are struggling to survive,” she said. “They are unsafe in homes. Out of work. Their income plummeted. Rent is still due. Kids are home. They are homeschooling.”

But Elliott said the pandemic has had some benefits on local operations. Remote services have made it easier for people for whom coming into the center was already a struggle.

“The pandemic has forced us to modernize our approach to the needs of our communities,” Elliott said. “Before you had to physically come downtown” and now the center can “reach everyone in San Diego.”

“The pandemic has made it more challenging, but we haven’t lost the ability to reach the people we need to,” she said.

San Diego has also seen higher call volumes during the pandemic and provided more services, though at a slower pace by comparison, according to data provided to VOSD by the city attorney’s office. Call volumes increased 29 percent while services increased 12 percent when comparing the eight-and-a-half months before mid-March – when the closure happened – and after.

Average call volumes have risen above 1,100 calls per month during the pandemic, 258 calls more than the monthly average pre-pandemic, the data shows. Services have risen to about 596 per month on average, 69 more than before the pandemic.

Each victim may receive multiple services, including legal help with things like restraining orders, emergency hotel night vouchers, counseling sessions and online professional training, officials said.

The post-pandemic services also include new offerings, like guidance on accessing various government benefits, Elliott spokeswoman Hilary Nemchik wrote in an email.

But Brooke Parr, directing attorney for the San Diego office of the Immigration Center for Women and Children, has seen referrals from the San Diego Family Justice Center for immigrant victims of domestic violence drop from six to 10 per month to one to two per month during the pandemic, she said.

“I don’t know if they (FJC staff) are not seeing as many numbers, or what’s happening with all the clients coming in before COVID,” said Parr, whose employees are working remotely only. Parr said the need for help remains high and the crisis has led to a “substantial increase of people living at home with the abuser,” who can intercept the mail. “Leaving has been difficult during this time.”

Critics argue victim resources provided by the San Diego Family Justice Center have all but vanished during the pandemic. But those same critics also claim the center had already been on the decline in recent years. COVID-19 just made it worse.

Elliott and Lopez-Cooper, the San Diego Family Justice Center director, paint a very different picture of the center’s trajectory in recent years. They say Elliott made victim-centered changes when she took over the center from SDPD in 2018.

“We are no longer a law enforcement agency. We are a social service agency, which is trauma-informed,” said Lopez-Cooper. “Law enforcement has a completely different ethos.”

For one San Diego police detective who worked at the center, though, the changes caused new internal division and tension, and hindered law enforcement’s ability to help victims.

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Until recently, Joe Bianco was an SDPD detective with six years of experience working on domestic violence and child abuse cases at the San Diego Family Justice Center.

In a scathing Oct. 28 email to more than 40 city leaders and others explaining his resignation, Bianco laid out his objections to the center’s onsite closure and did not mince words in his indictment of center leadership.

“The downfall of the FJC did not begin at COVID but it was exacerbated by the virus,” Bianco wrote. The “San Diego City Attorney’s office should be ashamed at the lack of vision and effort in resuming services here. You should also be ashamed at how you allowed the FJC to fall apart before COVID. Victims of DV need the FJC now more than ever. This work is essential, not the kind of work that can be done from home.”

Bianco declined an interview, and told VOSD he never intended for his email – which circulated on Twitter – to go public.

Elliott said her decision to keep staff off site is the right call.

“My obligation is to not only protect the victims that come to us, but also our own employees,” she said. “With those (COVID) numbers, it’s important to keep everyone safe. Of course we want to open, but we want to keep everyone safe.”

Just one out of the five California justice centers surveyed that remained open to walk-ins during the pandemic has had a staff member test positive for COVID-19. That staffer, at the Sacramento center, has since returned to work.

Separate from COVID-19, Bianco’s email also blamed Elliott and center staff for worsening relations between victims and the police officers who investigate the abuse crimes reported.

When Elliott took over in mid-2018, Bianco claimed the center began to decline with “infighting amongst the service providers.”

“It felt that there was an adversarial relationship between the FJC staff and the [Police Department], negating any feelings of teamwork that the original model thrived on. Intake personal (sic) even went as far as to convince victims not to cooperate with SDPD. SDPD wasn’t the only community partner not happy with the changes,” he wrote in the email.

A spokesman for Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, Ben Metcalf, said in an email its therapy services at the center were scaled back in 2011 when the justice center moved to a smaller location, and hospital staff “left the center in 2019 due to a lack of referrals for services.”

The CEO of the Center for Community Solutions, which also ended its partnership in recent years, did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Another former partner, Dress for Success San Diego, closed up shop entirely at the end of 2017.

While some partners did leave in recent years, center officials say overall partner ranks have actually risen from about a dozen when Elliott took over from SDPD in 2018 to 22 today. Multiple law firms, South Bay Community Services, the Mexican Consulate in San Diego, child program providers SAY San Diego, the YWCA and others were added.

As for the tensions Bianco described, Elliott said those may stem from her shift to a “victim-centric” approach, which included more robust victim conversations and processes around informed consent, and new state confidentiality training for the center’s four advocates on staff. The center also no longer asks for a victim’s immigration status.

The changes were aimed at ensuring “our LGBTQ communities felt comfortable coming to the FJC, our immigrant communities and those that had criminal records or had been trafficked,” Elliott said.

We “had to rebuild” in 2018, and “had to create procedures and compliance with confidentiality privacy laws,” Lopez-Cooper said.

But Bianco is not alone in his concern.

“The FJC I felt like saved my life, but I would never send anyone to it now and it pains me to say that,” said Jennica Lawford, who serves as chair of the San Diego chapter of the VOICES Survivor Network. She said now is “one of the worst times to close for victims.” The Family Justice Center “is absolutely considered essential” and has “funding and is not using it.”

The local center is a “safe haven we don’t have,” said Lawford, who in 2010 received help at the center filing a police report and restraining order against an abusive boyfriend, as well as therapy, assistance moving and changing her phone number. “I came in very broken. It was the worst point in my life. I was able to pick myself back up with the help of the Family Justice Center and it’s so hard someone else in my shoes doesn’t get that.”

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Another familiar face is also upset by the ongoing closure and says the center has declined from its heyday under his leadership.

Former San Diego city attorney Casey Gwinn, who founded the San Diego Family Justice Center in 2002, now leads the San Diego-based nonprofit Alliance for HOPE International and helps open family justice centers across the world.

“No one in good conscience can say the San Diego FJC is a model for any community in the United States today,” said Gwinn. “We’ve been waiting 13 years for the San Diego FJC to be dynamic,“ and advocating “for somebody to care, for somebody to rebuild.”

There was a glimmer of hope Elliott would be that person in 2018, but the lack of progress since then has been disheartening, Gwinn said.

“For me this is not about Mara Elliott. … It’s been about what’s best for survivors,” he said.

Within a year of the center’s grand opening, Gwinn said there were 25 agencies onsite and 15 more were added offsite. In the beginning, he housed the entire city attorney domestic violence unit at the center, which included 15 prosecutors and 20 support staff. The unit was later removed when the center relocated to a smaller location. SDPD also housed its domestic violence unit in the center, and remains today.

Gwinn said with 120 professionals and 125 active volunteers working for the center back then, “it was an army,” serving 1,200 families per month. In contrast, “You could walk into the FJC today and you wouldn’t bump into anybody.”

Gwinn said the San Diego Family Justice Center lost its affiliation with the Alliance for HOPE in 2019 due to deficiencies, and an email to the city obtained by VOSD through a public records request says as much.

But Elliott said the San Diego center was never officially affiliated with the Alliance in the first place and does not want to be.

“We have not been a member of the Alliance and the SDPD was not a member of the Alliance and I know Casey Gwinn had asked us to be at some point and then didn’t want us to be at some point,” Elliott said. “I don’t frankly understand the Alliance, how they make their money.”

Disagreement over whether the justice center was ever formally part of the Alliance is just the latest turn in an off-and-on relationship between the city and Gwinn’s organization. In 2012, then-city attorney Jan Goldsmith concluded SDPD contracts with the Alliance to serve as fiscal agent for the center were entered illegally and asked the city auditor to probe the deals, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. The audit was later dropped, citing a lack of cooperation and documents from the Alliance.

Gwinn always maintained there was nothing untoward about the contracts and hired an outside accounting firm to audit them, which found accepted accounting principles were followed, the newspaper reported.

Then early on in Elliott’s tenure, in 2017, she hired the justice center’s founding director-turned-Alliance CEO Gael Strack for assistance taking over the center from SDPD and a new strategic plan.

Several goals included in the 2018 strategic plan and recommendations have not yet come to fruition, including expansion of the center’s partnership with the County of San Diego, raising funds through a new foundation, relocating the center to a larger space and converting it into its own nonprofit – one of Elliott’s goals too. Elliott said progress on those items slowed because of the pandemic. The center recently extended its lease at its current home in the San Diego Housing Commission building.

“We continue to implement action steps outlined in these documents,” Elliott’s spokeswoman Nemchik said in an email.

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While some feel the existing center is coming up short for victims, others say the criticism is unfair. Demand for domestic violence victim services, they say, exceed resources available everywhere.

“The FJC is underfunded. They only have eight employees to serve thousands of victims. Without having the staffing and resources they need, they are set up to fail,” said Jamie Beck, president of the nonprofit Free to Thrive, a partner organization at the center since 2019 that serves human trafficking victims.

Even before the pandemic, Beck said center staff struggled to keep up with demand and “still couldn’t answer all those calls. … There are not enough attorneys, therapists, shelter beds.”

Parr, with the Immigration Center for Women and Children, said the pandemic has made everything more difficult. Clients with children abroad have not been able to bring their children here with consulates closed. Now, consulates are “slowly allowing emergency cases, but no one is really clear what is considered an emergency,” Parr said. On the other hand, immigration court closures aided some other clients by slowing down removal proceedings, she said.

During COVID-19, Beck said, “everyone is doing the best they can.” She also welcomed the addition of remote services. “I am hopeful that one silver lining of COVID is that social services including the FJC adapt to a new method of delivering their services that lasts beyond the pandemic.”

As for Bianco’s claims there’s new hostility with police, Beck said changes at the center are simply “trying to make sure victims and survivors knew their rights before talking to police. … Our client population does not (always) feel safe with law enforcement.”

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Though talks of radically expanding, relocating and reforming the San Diego Family Justice Center are postponed, another justice center is on the way.

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan is moving forward with plans for a new center in San Marcos that will not involve the city of San Diego.

The new center – dubbed “One Safe Place” – does not have an opening date, but will likely open in summer or fall 2021, said Steve Walker, a spokesman for Stephan. “Between 2009 and 2018, 44 percent of the domestic violence homicides in San Diego County took place in North County. Statistics also show that North County reports about double the number of domestic violence victims compared to East County and South Bay, demonstrating a need for an FJC located closer to those victims,” Walker wrote in an email.

The DA’s office will remain a partner at the San Diego Family Justice Center, where one out of three victims come from outside the city of San Diego, said Elliott.

Elliott called the addition of a North County center “wonderful,” and said now, “I want to focus on the South Bay.”

She envisions sending justice center representatives to San Ysidro for pop-up clinics or establishing a presence in existing wellness centers led by the county or other partners.

“It’s exciting, but all this takes cooperation and money and time,” she said.

VOSD intern Kara Grant contributed to this report.

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