Being a victim of domestic violence is challenging enough, but fighting it through the court system can sometimes add unwanted stress to the situation. An agency in Erie County is helping victims fight for the justice and protection they need while spending minimal time in the courtroom.
The downtown Buffalo headquarters of the Family Justice Center of Erie County is a place of refuge for victims of domestic violence. But for those who go there seeking help, the process can be long and demanding, with victims often spending hours at a time going through questions, medical evaluations, and the steps in the legal process.
Instead of spending that time in a sterile office setting, the Center’s domestic violence advocates speak with victims in “living rooms” – rooms transformed into welcoming spaces.
“It’s easier for people to share their story the more comfortable they are,” explained FJC Director of Operations Tiffany Pavone. “And we’re going to ask a lot of questions and need a lot of answers. So the more comfortable and relaxing we can make it, make them feel like they’re coming to someone’s home and feel like they can truly share their story, the better off it will be for the client.”
Comfortable couches and warm décor donated by various individuals and organizations adorn the rooms. In one, colorful ukuleles and the iconic Beatles Abbey Road album cover hang from purple walls, and the ceiling is draped with white cloth reminiscent of a four poster bed. The contents were donated by the father of a woman named Meredith, who died as a result of domestic violence. The room honors her bohemian style, musical talents, and love of travel. It serves what Pavone said is the overall purpose of the living rooms – to show victims of domestic violence that they deserve beauty in their lives.
When it’s time to take the step of filing for a temporary order of protection for those who need it, rather than send victims into what FJC Executive Director Mary Travers Murphy described as the chaos of family court, the Center offers the opportunity to use its “courtroom in a closet.”
“It looks like a funky little office,” said Murphy. “The only reason you know it’s a courtroom is because there’s a bible there and there’s a monitor there.”
With their domestic violence advocates by their side, the victims enter the “courtroom in a closet,” sit in front of a computer with a web cam, and use Skype to hold video conferences with judges considering the order of protection.
“They have a much less intimidating, much more casual conversation with the court over the laptop than having to send them down to family court on their own in front of an intimidating bench, right off the throes of a traumatic incident,” said Pavone.
The victims do still have to appear in court at some point in the legal process, and often face their abuser. But they do so with their advocate by their side. And while many enter the doors of the Family Justice Center not knowing what their next step will be, most leave with their initial air of caution and concern gone, replaced by a sense that finding justice isn’t impossible.
“We will be your support system,” said Pavone. “So you’re not by yourself and you don’t get intimidated out of the process.”