It took Valerie over three years to escape her abusive partner. “I moved three or four times,” she said. “I had to start all over again. I had to change my job, the vehicle I drove, everything.”
In 2013, Valerie’s partner began to act erratically and stopped taking his medications. (Victims’ names have been changed to protect their identities.) She met with her partner’s mental health counselors repeatedly to try to stabilize their relationship, but he began to make verbal threats against her. In July 2014, she contacted the New Haven Police Department, seeking protection for herself and her two children, both under ten years old. An officer drove her to a police substation across the city from her home. But the officers she met there were unsympathetic.
“My very first interaction with them was awful,” Valerie said. “They were on their cell phones when taking their report. They talked down to me. They knew the person I was trying to get away from. Their response was, ‘What did you expect?’”
That July, Valerie filed for a restraining order, but her partner began to break into her home when she was out. She contacted the State Police for help, but officers told her they couldn’t take action without concrete proof. By the year’s end, the situation grew dire. “He showed up to my house and said he was going to shoot his gun in my face so that no man would ever want to be with me,” Valerie said. “That was when I moved.”
For Valerie, the cops’ indifference was merely the beginning of an arduous search for safety. After meeting with the police, she went to the New Haven office of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, but the caseworkers there blamed her for parental negligence; eventually, she found a caseworker in another town. It took two more visits from the state police before, in October 2015, Valerie got in contact with a victim advocate at the Superior Court on Elm Street who referred her to the Umbrella Center for Domestic Violence Services, the local support agency. The advocate offered to help Valerie move out of Connecticut to protect herself, but her partner further escalated his threats, promising to kill Valerie’s family one at a time and murder her when she came back for the funeral. Fearing for their safety, most of Valerie’s family members got gun permits.
Later that month, the police set up a sting operation with Valerie to subdue and arrest her partner. She went back to the Superior Court to seek criminal charges, and, aware that he could be released at any time, sought to terminate his parental rights at the civil court on Church Street. This January, over a year after the arrest, Valerie testified against her partner in court. After that last trial, he’s in jail for the foreseeable future. But Valerie’s kids don’t play in the same parks as they used to. She no longer sees any of her old friends. By the time her partner’s sentence ends, she expects to have changed her name, making her transformation complete.
Valerie’s kids don’t play in the same parks as they used to. She no longer sees any of her old friends.
Valerie’s case is, in many ways, typical. In Greater New Haven, it often takes a victim of domestic violence—more than three-quarters of whom are female—at least twenty-five hours to meet with all of the advocates she needs to start the recovery process. Victims must set up appointment after appointment with law enforcement officers, lawyers, and counselors, often traveling to each one on slow bus lines over several days, just to begin to find a path to safety.
“Having to be referred to three or four different locations, do an intake three or four times, and meet with three or four different people, it gets to be a lot on your plate,” Valerie said. “It almost deters you to get the support you need.” For low-income victims working full-time jobs, the hours required to see a case to its conclusion can be prohibitive.
This summer, local support providers and officials made a push to change the system. New Haven Mayor Toni Harp and newly-appointed Police Chief Anthony Campbell backed a plan to build a new facility called the Hope Family Justice Center of Greater New Haven, where victims of domestic violence would be able to access counseling, legal aid, law enforcement protection, and child care, among other services, in a centralized location. The family justice center model has helped victims in cities from San Diego to New York, and New Haven support advocates have been pushing to create one for over a decade. Project planners hope to open the facility in downtown New Haven, close to the city’s courthouses and along public transit lines, as soon as two years from now.
The facility could make it easier for thousands of victims in Greater New Haven to escape their abusers and establish a new household elsewhere. But in a city with rising rates of domestic violence, there are other issues the center may not be able to fix. Agencies are strapped for resources: legal advocates are overworked, shelters across the state are out of beds, and an outdated Connecticut policy often forces officers to arrest victims along with their abusers. The Hope Family Justice Center, when it opens, will be a safe space in the heart of the city. The question is whether it will be enough.
Even as violent crime rates in New Haven have plummeted during the tenures of Chief Dean Esserman and Chief Campbell, reports of domestic violence are on the rise. New Haven police made 943 arrests for domestic violence assaults in 2014, 1,432 in 2015, and 1,576 last year. “New Haven has one of the highest, if not the highest, rates of people being killed or injured from domestic violence, from what we know in reporting,” said Esperina Stubblefield, Director of the Umbrella Center for Domestic Violence Services. Although efforts to combat street crime through community policing have worked, domestic violence—which usually takes place in the hidden confines of the home—requires a different approach.
The New Haven Police Department gets more domestic violence calls than any other kind of call. These situations are often volatile for officers. “Domestic violence is based on control,” said NHPD Detective Kristine Cuddy. “When an officer arrives on scene they’re taking that control.” It’s hard to predict how much danger a call will pose. On September 23, two New Haven officers were shot in the arm responding to a domestic violence dispute on Elm Street in the Dwight neighborhood.
If an officer is able to defuse the situation, the next goal is connecting the victim to help, a crucial step that changed dramatically five years ago. In the past, there was little coordination between cops and support providers in Connecticut. Police officers who responded to a domestic violence incident would simply hand the victim a sheet with an agency’s phone number. Nationwide, under this system, only about 4 percent of victims receive help or counseling.
Victims must set up appointment after appointment with law enforcement officers, lawyers, and counselors, often traveling to each one on slow bus lines over several days, just to begin to find a path to safety.
In 2012, the NHPD distributed a placard with a series of eleven questions to every officer. “Has he/she threatened to kill you or your children?” “Does he/she have a gun or can he/she get one easily?” These questions comprise the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP), a protocol used to assess the degree of risk a victim faces. The questionnaire includes one demographic question: whether the victim’s abuser is employed. “When an abusive man is unemployed, there’s both the financial strains of unemployment and the notion that unemployment takes away from traditional masculinities,” said Jacquelyn Campbell, a researcher of domestic violence at Johns Hopkins University who developed LAP. In New Haven, domestic violence calls may be more frequent in low-income neighborhoods with higher unemployment rates like Fair Haven and the Hill, Chief Campbell added—especially in summertime, when temperatures and tempers rise.
In every domestic violence call, the responding officer must ask all eleven questions. If, based on the victim’s responses, she is classified as “high-risk,” the officer dials the number of a support provider and hands her the phone. The Umbrella Center anticipates between fifteen and twenty LAP calls on a typical weekend.
By this fall, all of Connecticut’s local jurisdictions had implemented the protocol; Connecticut is the first such state. Across the country, in districts that have implemented LAP, the rate of victims receiving further help or counseling from support providers has soared from 4 to 70 percent.
BHCare Offices 836 Foxon Road, East Haven
BHCare, the local healthcare provider operating the Umbrella Center for Domestic Violence Services, occupies an office along East Haven’s main commercial strip. It’s a ten minute drive from downtown; the bus ride takes almost an hour. The center provides counseling, legal advocacy, law enforcement-based assistance, safety planning, confidential safe houses, and other services for victims in nineteen cities and towns, including New Haven. It’s the product of a support network that has taken forty-four years to develop.
In 1973, Yale Medical School student Anne Flitcraft and her husband Evan Stark started New Haven’s first domestic violence safe house, taking women and children on the run into their home in West Rock. Over the next four decades, community activists founded a shelter near the Yale hockey rink for twenty-five women and children, convened support groups, and staffed a hotline. In 1986, the New Haven Domestic Violence Task Force formed, and nonprofit support agencies were folded into the Umbrella Center. Now, resources that used to be uncoordinated or nonexistent are run by a single organization.
But support services remain scattered throughout the region, and some agencies are struggling to meet victims’ needs. Demand for beds at domestic violence shelters has more than doubled in the last eight years. In 2016, the state’s shelters operated at 125 percent capacity. “Victims are presenting with more acute, complex needs,” likely as a result of cuts to other service organizations, said Liza Andrews, Director of Public Policy and Communications at the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CCADV). “We’re seeing more victims with specific behavioral health problems, addiction problems, and serious medical issues.” These needs, Andrews said, have meant that more victims are living at shelters for months on end.
Connecticut is the only state where victims are arrested on a regular basis.
CCADV, which coordinates funding for eighteen partner organizations including the Umbrella Center, served almost forty thousand clients in 2016, but housed only one thousand clients (and twelve hundred children) in shelters. Yet shelter services make up the biggest chunk of the Coalition’s funding. Given the cost, some support agencies in Connecticut are no longer providing beds for victims, according to Karen Jarmoc, President and CEO of CCADV. Instead, they’re using the money to pay for victims’ first month of rent or transport them to a safer home.
With services spread thin, it can be hard to find help in Greater New Haven. Even if help is available, the time it takes to commute between agencies and wait for appointments, often with children in tow, creates a major burden for victims. But support providers believe a family justice center will solve that.
The concept of a family justice center originated in 1987, when Casey Gwinn, a prosecutor in the San Diego City Attorney’s office, was arguing hundreds of cases pertaining to child abuse stemming from domestic violence every month. Gwinn felt that legal action alone did not ensure victims’ well-being. Along with Ashley Walker, a survivor of sexual assault who was running the San Diego YWCA’s Services for Battered Women, and Gael Strack, a fellow prosecutor, he developed the idea for a single facility that would provide all of the services victims need. By 2002, San Diego had opened the nation’s first family justice center, housing 120 employees and volunteers, with overwhelmingly positive results. “We had about a 90 percent drop in domestic violence-related homicides between 1985 and 2008,” Gwinn said. “It’s hard to explain that around anything but the collaborative work we’re doing.”
In October 2003, President George W. Bush unveiled a national “President’s Family Justice Center Initiative,” to be helmed by Gwinn. The program allocated $20 million to develop fifteen centers across the country. The family justice center model has since spread worldwide to a hundred thirty-seven communities in twenty countries. According to a 2013 CNN report, a victim will attempt to leave an abusive relationship seven times, on average, before she leaves for good. In communities with family justice centers, that number has shrunk to one or two.
New Haven’s committee plans to build an entirely new facility large enough to accommodate at least half a dozen services. Stubblefield hopes to see the center running in twelve to eighteen months, while Gwinn predicted the center could be up and running in two to five years. With Yale only blocks away from the ideal site, there’s money to be mobilized, but fundraising has not yet begun.
Given the tightening state and federal budgets of the Trump Era—the President proposed in his latest budget a $2 million cut to the federal Office of Violence Against Women—Jarmoc, the CCADV President, believes fundraising may prove challenging. “This is a time of uncertain resources,” she said. “A family justice center is a very extensive project. The question is how are you going to create it financially, and how are you going to sustain it.”
New Haven Police Headquarters 1 Union Avenue
“You might think it’s warm in here,” Anthony Campbell said to the crowd, beaming, “but that’s the Holy Spirit you’re feeling.”
The humidity of the warm June day had seeped into City Hall, and three hundred assembled New Haveners sweated in their dresses and suits. Even in the oppressive heat, Campbell was in high spirits: it was his eighteenth wedding anniversary, and he was being sworn in as the New Haven Chief of Police.
In 85 percent of family-related cases in Connecticut, at least one party is self-represented, meaning low-income victims of abuse often have to fight for their safety without the help of an attorney.
A 44-year-old from Harlem, Campbell attended Yale Divinity School and planned to become a Jesuit priest. But in 1998, he entered the New Haven Police Department, drawn to its policy of community policing, in which officers build ties with community members. By 2016, Campbell had risen to the rank of Assistant Chief. After the departure of embattled former Chief Dean Esserman, Campbell was a clear replacement. Mayor Harp, who regularly worked with domestic violence victims in her twenty-seven years as a homeless services outreach advocate at Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center, wanted to make the family justice center a focus of her reelection campaign. In promoting Campbell, she elevated an officer who shares her priorities.
At the ceremony, Campbell emphasized his support for the Mayor’s mission to combat domestic violence. “Her commitment is unparalleled,” Campbell said of Harp, his voice soft and reedy. “She realizes we must bring domestic violence and intimate partner violence to a halt. She wants to bring a family justice center to New Haven.”
Since LAP was implemented in 2012, New Haven Police have been able to connect more victims to support providers, but that hasn’t addressed the true problem: domestic violence itself. Campbell sees community policing as crucial to keeping abuse at bay. “A big part of the pattern of domestic violence is isolation, whether it’s self-isolation or a control mechanism of the offender,” Campbell said. “Community policing is in direct contrast to isolation.” This fall, Chief Campbell is working with the police union to distribute department-issued phones to officers so that they can give their numbers out to residents on their beat.
Once the Hope Family Justice Center opens its doors, New Haven police will have an opportunity to build further trust. Former NHPD police captain Julie Johnson, leader of New Haven’s planning committee, said that in cities like Milwaukee, centers have become community institutions. “With a family justice center, you want your community to know it’s there,” Johnson said. “You want people to walk in off the street who wouldn’t call the police. It’s public knowledge.” The LAP and the family justice center model could work in tandem to connect victims to services more fluidly and provide community-based support.
But without changes in the law, all New Haven community policing initiatives may be for naught. In 1984, after the husband of a woman named Tracey Thurman attacked and stabbed her, Thurman sued the Torrington Police Department in Connecticut, claiming the police had disregarded the danger she faced in past calls to her home. The case precipitated sweeping changes to Connecticut’s domestic violence legislation, most notably through the Family Violence Prevention and Response Act, enacted in 1986. The act included a “mandatory arrest” provision for officers, requiring the arrest of alleged perpetrators “if there is probable cause to believe that person committed a family violence crime.” In cases where a victim uses physical force in self-defense, the officer, seeing signs that the abuser and the victim hurt each other, often has to arrest both. This practice, known as a “dual arrest,” can embroil victims in lengthy legal struggles.
Elizabeth hadn’t felt this treatment qualified as abuse, but the support group changed everything.
All other states with mandatory arrest clauses, including New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island, have passed “primary aggressor” legislation requiring officers to attempt to identify which partner instigated the violence and avoid arresting the other party. But in Connecticut, a 2004 General Assembly bill to implement a similar protocol was stripped of most of its provisions. The state legislature has acted aggressively in recent years to protect victims of domestic violence, passing laws requiring the subjects of temporary restraining orders to give up firearms and criminalizing nonviolent stalking behavior that causes severe emotional distress. But the Thurman Law, thirty-one years later, remains largely unchanged.
Today, Connecticut is the only state where victims are arrested on a regular basis. According to a February ProPublica report, the national dual arrest rate in domestic violence incidents is around 2 percent. Even though NHPD officer training emphasizes avoiding dual arrests, New Haven’s rate last year was almost 19 percent. Gwinn, the founder of the family justice center model, said he hopes the New Haven center will be the impetus for change in legislation and practice. Even in the absence of new state laws, the New Haven Police Department could enact a primary aggressor policy at the local level, he suggested. Unless this change is made, victims of abuse may hesitate to call for help at all.
New Haven Superior Court 121 Elm Street
The New Haven Superior Court, where hearings of domestic violence criminal cases take place, is an imposing building. Six Ionic columns stand imperiously out front, and visitors are greeted with a metal detector when they walk inside. The sounds of murmured conversation and brisk footsteps echo coldly back and forth in the atrium.
At one domestic violence court session this September, a woman sat with two young girls, their hair in beaded braids, on either side of her. They leaned on each of her shoulders, waiting for the hearings to start. The session opened at 10:30 a.m. In the thirty-eight minutes before the judge took the bench, a man sitting in the audience behind them grew impatient. “I lost like thirty hours of work already,” he said to the room. “I’m about to turn into the judge. Judge Harris says everybody get the fuck out of here. I don’t even want to go to work. I just want to go home and go to bed now.” As the wait continued, a woman walked into the courtroom and sat in the front row. “Damn,” he laughed, loud enough for everyone else to hear. “Look at that bitch.” The woman and girls sat quietly.
Legal aid is a crucial part of recovery, in both short-term survival and long-term safety, but it’s a complex process that can expose victims to traumatic environments like this. Victims often have to meet with victim advocates at the Superior Court to prepare for criminal trials, file for restraining orders at the civil court on Church Street, and seek help with divorce proceedings and financial assistance at the offices of New Haven Legal Assistance on State Street.
Legal advocates hope to locate New Haven’s family justice center as close to the downtown courthouses as possible. But Barbara Bellucci, the Umbrella Center’s Family Violence Victim Advocate Supervisor, wants to go a step further. “Victims often want to meet with attorneys personally. This often takes place at the [Superior Court], which is not a space that’s particularly trauma-sensitive,” she said. “I hope there will be space for advocates to meet at the family justice center, and a place for kids to play and be engaged while Mom talks to the prosecutor.”
Given the prevalence of domestic violence, New Haven’s legal advocates are perpetually inundated with cases. At the Superior Court, the Umbrella Center’s six Family Violence Victim Advocates received twenty-four hundred new cases in the last fiscal year. Around five years ago, funding cuts eliminated the two attorneys in the Connecticut Attorney’s Office strictly dedicated to domestic violence cases, placing even more strain on the system. Now, prosecutors and victim advocates hold quarterly roundtable meetings, and each Judicial District has a designated liaison prosecutor who receives additional training for domestic violence cases. But in 85 percent of family-related cases in Connecticut, at least one party is self-represented, meaning low-income victims of abuse often have to fight for their safety without the help of an attorney.
“I hope there will be space for advocates to meet at the family justice center, and a place for kids to play and be engaged while Mom talks to the prosecutor.”
In recent years, support agencies have begun serving more undocumented immigrants, who often hesitate to reach out for help, fearing deportation. The Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act of 2000 established the U-Visa, which grants temporary legal status, with a pathway to citizenship, to immigrants who are victims of crimes. In situations where deportation is imminent, legal advocates can prioritize their visa applications. But not every undocumented victim knows about the U-Visa, or feels she can safely apply for it. “We want to get the word out that whether a victim is undocumented or not, we will provide service,” Bellucci said. “We don’t want anyone to be isolated.”
Facing similar challenges, the Bridgeport Center for Family Justice started a legal incubator program this February, working with the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association to bring in low bono and pro bono legal services and providing office space for five attorneys to start private practices. “Attorneys come from everywhere,” said Debra Greenwood, Executive Director of Bridgeport’s center. “If we had the space we could have brought in ten.” Through a similar program, New Haven’s center could ease the burden placed on the Superior Court’s advocates. “We already have a relationship with legal aid, but if we get a center, we would try to increase that access, hopefully utilizing the many colleges and law schools in the area,” Johnson said. “There are just not enough free legal services.”
The Center for Family Justice 753 Fairfield Avenue, Bridgeport
Johnson, Stubblefield, and other planning committee members for the Hope Family Justice Center of Greater New Haven have toured centers in San Diego, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Bridgeport to piece together a plan for New Haven’s center. According to Johnson, the Bridgeport Center for Family Justice could serve as a model for the planning committee.
The lobby of the Bridgeport center is adorned with a brightly colored mural, the rainbow silhouettes of hands extending from the borders to the center. “Hands are not for hitting,” it reads. The first floor has a waiting room with a fishtank in the corner, a room for intake meetings with a box of tissues at the ready, and a forensic interview room for victims of child abuse. Downstairs are offices for attorneys, prosecutors, and law enforcement, along with a wellness room where clients take yoga classes. Upstairs are rooms for support advocates to meet with clients, many of whom are referred by the center’s twenty-four-hour hotline or just walk in; a conference room that hosts self-sufficiency classes; and a children’s room with jungle murals painted on the walls, Halloween costumes lining two folding tables in the middle. Children of the fifteen clients living in Kathie’s Place, the center’s confidential safe house, often can’t go trick-or-treating elsewhere, so the center’s employees hold their own Halloween for the kids every fall.
The Center for Family Justice is a beautiful facility, and above all, it’s efficient.
Elizabeth, a victim who sought help at the facility while it was still the Center for Women and Children, said the support groups she attended there helped her recognize and recover from twenty years of abuse. For years, her ex-husband manipulated her psychologically, becoming furious when she served him the wrong dish for dinner or threw out leftover food, and forbidding her from leaving the house on weekends. Elizabeth hadn’t felt this treatment qualified as abuse, but the support group changed everything. “It opened my eyes up,” she said. “It was a huge turning point for me. I realized what I was going through.” Elizabeth is safe now. Last year, she got her Masters in social work, and she has begun working for a support agency, helping other survivors like her.
The Center for Family Justice is a beautiful facility, and above all, it’s efficient. For the typical first-time client, the intake process is just an hour long, enough time to choose the services she wants, fill out paperwork, and get immediate help if her needs are pressing. And every victim is guided through the center with an advocate at her side, making potentially challenging parts of the process, like meeting with law enforcement, easier to handle.
In New Haven, a key consideration for Johnson and the planning committee is how best to incorporate police into the center. “Let’s say the victim comes off of the street or calls and comes by and says, ‘I need services,’ Johnson said. “One of the first things they’re going to be asked is whether they want to speak to law enforcement. If they say no, they’re not going to have any interaction with law enforcement.” Chief Campbell echoed Johnson’s pledge. “A Family Justice Center should not be something that when you say it, the first thing you think of is law enforcement,” he said. “The first thing people should think about is somewhere they can go to obtain resources that will give them a sense of stability and hope.”
Given the time and effort it took her to find that same sense of stability, Valerie is optimistic about the prospect of a family justice center in New Haven. “It’s just a lot of work to get support,” she said. “I’m hoping [this will make it] a simplified effort.” The planning committee has held focus groups with victims to come up with ideas for the center, which she views as a promising start. “Talking about this is definitely helpful,” Valerie said. “As long as you’re talking to the right people about this, this support will help people restart their lives.”
If it takes after Bridgeport’s center, the Hope Family Justice Center of Greater New Haven will be an island of calm, a place where victims have agency, even a pillar of the community. For victims, care will be readily available and accommodating of their needs. It will be some time before the center opens, and it may not solve all of the system’s many problems. But in a city where agencies are hard to reach, where shelters have no free beds, where legal aid is limited, and where victims are arrested along with their abusers a fifth of the time, it’s a start.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed a comment about the link between unemployment and abusive behavior. It was said by Jacquelyn Campbell, a researcher of domestic violence at Johns Hopkins University.