Special Reports

1-stop center no longer at forefront

Back in 1995, Pierce County officials realized that women and men who'd been abused by family members had to go to a bewildering array of locations to report the abuse and get the help they needed.

A typical domestic violence victim - trailed by her children, confused by the legal system and fearful of leaving home - often gave up and went back to her abuser. Perpetrators went unpunished.

So Pierce County did something about it.

The county created a one-stop domestic violence center, one of the first in the country. It was a place where victims could talk to deputies, prosecutors and victim advocates who would help them through the system.

The center, in Room 108 of the County-City Building in downtown Tacoma, drew national attention. Employees traveled to conventions to explain how it worked. Prosecutors and politicians from other cities came to check it out and copy the idea.

The City of Tacoma never created a one-stop center. And now, time has passed the county's center by. Cramped and overcrowded, it pales in comparison to newer domestic violence legal systems in other cities.

The gold standard is in San Diego, where a 27,000-square-foot center houses not only lawyers and cops, but also doctors, nurses and advocates from social service agencies.

It's not surprising that enormous San Diego has the money to create a more sophisticated system than Tacoma's.

But even Vancouver, Wash., has a novel domestic violence program focused on protecting victims and targeting abusers. Recently Vancouver prosecutor Josephine Townsend offered to help Tacoma learn how to create a better system.

Craig Roberts, one of the coordinators of Pierce County's one-stop center, would love to see Tacoma and Pierce County adopt some of the ideas now common in other cities.

Most of all, he'd like more space to handle victims from both the city and county.

Room 108 is an office suite crammed with people and files. Hallways are cluttered. A small conference room serves extra duty as an interview room and a playroom for children.

An abused mother who comes to the one-stop center to tell a deputy how she's been mistreated by her husband or boyfriend often has no choice but to bring her children.

And the children have little choice but to sit and listen to sad stories about their family, Roberts said.

"We try to give them crayons to keep them busy," Roberts said. "It's a little distracting for the moms and for the kids."

In Vancouver's one-stop center, children can play in a small room filled with toys, the walls covered by hand-painted murals, while their mothers talk to police officers. Community groups have donated so many toys that if a child wants to take one home, that's fine.

"We've always wanted that," Roberts said wistfully.

Creating a better system

Here's what Tacoma and Pierce County would need to do to bring domestic violence services up to the level of some of the best systems in the country:

•Coordinate domestic violence cases in Tacoma's and Pierce County's misdemeanor-level courts - the municipal and district courts.

•Coordinate domestic violence cases in Pierce County's misdemeanor and felony-level courts - the district and superior courts.

•Find enough office space in or near the courthouse to house all the attorneys, law-enforcement officers and advocates who work with victims, so victims have to go to only one place.

•Make space in that office for representatives of victim services - the groups that help victims get emergency housing and food, apply for name changes and child custody, arrange for supervised child visitation, work with the military and provide therapy.

Domestic violence has been at the front of local officials' thoughts since Tacoma Police Chief David Brame fatally shot his wife, Crystal, and himself April 26. In divorce filings, Crystal Brame alleged her husband had abused her emotionally and physically for years.

A one-stop center probably wouldn't have saved, or even helped, the police chief's wife. But many lawyers, victim advocates and politicians regard domestic violence as an under-recognized plague that rarely gets the attention it needs.

Crystal Brame's high-profile case brings renewed focus to the issue, which might give officials an opportunity to set up a one-stop center.

"The commission's had this plan for about five years, and I've gotten a lot more attention since April," said Ann Eft, director of the Pierce County Commission Against Domestic Violence.

Tacoma officials say they want to work to coordinate the city's and county's domestic violence legal services, which could help make Pierce County a model for the rest of the country once again.

"That's at the top of our list," said Tacoma City Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg. "It's our top priority: Working on a collaborative, cross-jurisdictional judicial system."

County officials, too, say they want to streamline the system to ensure domestic violence offenders are treated the same way whether they're in city court or county court. Ladenburg's husband, Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, supports the plan.

Cash and cooperation

Creating an effective one-stop domestic violence center would take a combination of money and teamwork.

City and county officials have said that if voters approve a 0.3 percentage point increase in the sales tax next month, some of the revenue could pay for a coordinated domestic violence legal system.

However, the city has created no plan showing how the sales tax money would be spent.

A tentative county plan for spending the sales tax money includes no cash for a one-stop domestic violence center downtown. It does include partial funding for three satellite domestic violence centers in the Lakewood, Gig Harbor and Puyallup areas.

But the Ladenburgs and City Councilman Rick Talbert, who is working with Connie Ladenburg on domestic violence issues, have said they plan to try to create the one-stop center regardless of whether the sales tax increase passes.

Where money would come from, they haven't said. John Ladenburg has said he believes the county could provide some space for expanded offices.

A coordinated one-stop center might not cost much more than is being spent now.

In San Diego, city officials say the biggest expense is the free parking they provide across the street. In Vancouver, the only additional expense is an office assistant, whose salary was initially paid by a grant.

In Pierce County, the one-stop center cost nothing to create, other than the office space donated by the county, Roberts said. Employees work for the same agencies they always have.

But integrating cases from the municipal, district and Superior courts would cost money because victims and perpetrators in each place are treated differently.

Primarily, the difference is that perpetrators in the county are assigned probation officers; perpetrators in the city are monitored by judges. Plus, victims in county cases can work with county-paid victim advocates, who help them understand the legal system. The city has no such advocates.

Making the systems consistent could mean Tacoma would need to hire probation officers and victim advocates.

Besides sales tax money, there might be other sources.

Earlier this month President Bush announced $20 million in funding to create 12 domestic violence centers across the country. He called them "Family Justice Centers," a name used by the San Diego center.

Eileen O'Brien, Pierce County's justice services manager, plans to apply for one of the Family Justice Center grants. She hopes the county and city can create a one-stop center with an array of victim services, including doctors and nurses.

Spokane County obtained a federal grant in 1997 to create an integrated county-city domestic violence system. The grant, through a program to reduce violence against women, paid the salaries of several new employees, rent on a building near the courthouse and some operational costs, said Spokane County deputy prosecutor John Love.

The county and city now pay most of the costs of the center, and have reduced staffing somewhat, Love said.

San Diego officials raised some of the money they needed with state and local grants. In addition they held a gala fund-raiser that raised $150,000.

Spokane's and Vancouver's one-stop centers coordinate cases in city and county courts. San Diego's center serves only the city.

In each city, the key to creating a coordinated system and one-stop center wasn't the funding. It was the relationships.

In Vancouver, the idea worked because it was proposed by low-level attorneys who brought the city's politicians on board. In San Diego, the idea didn't fly until the mayor, city attorney and police chief were friends.

In Pierce County, none of this would happen overnight. Eft, who has worked on the idea for five years, thinks it will take another two to five years to see it happen.

Combining court services in domestic violence cases would be "a huge turf issue," Eft said. "I'm willing to go for baby steps on that one."

She said her first priority is to create a one-stop center where victims could learn how to apply for emergency housing, food and other aid as well as work on their court case.

"I just want one door for the victims to go through," Eft said. "They don't want to have to go five different places, or 10 different places. For victims, this is the best thing going."

Lisa Kremer: 253-597-8658