EMPOWERING VICTIMS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE: EMPOWER LAB VISITS THE QUEENS FAMILY JUSTICE CENTER
Imagine for a moment that you are one of the 230,000+ people this year in New York City who has experienced sexual violence, in the form of domestic violence, elder abuse, or sex trafficking. What parts of your life, do you imagine, might be impacted by the violence? How might you work towards piecing them back together?
For example: What if you shared a home with an abusive partner, made the choice to leave them, and now fear that they might find you there?
What if you’re interested in filing a police report but intimidated by the thought of going into a police station?
What about your public assistance benefits? What if, suddenly, your public assistance benefits are cut off and you can’t figure out why? How do you navigate continuing to receive benefits if your household is changing?
What if you need supportive counseling and safety planning to manage the fear that the violence left behind? What if you want to stay with your partner, and speak to someone about that decision?
What about debt and financial planning? Has your credit been harmed by a stolen identity? Is your financial situation different now if your partner is no longer in the picture?
What about divorce, custody of children, visitation, child support, and spousal support? How about disentangling bank accounts and joint ownerships?
What sort of additional issues may arise if you are also an immigrant? Will this affect your visa status or employment authorization? What if your partner asserts control over you by threatening to report you to authorities, or hiding your immigration documentation?
What about the cross-generational impacts of trauma on children; how can you ensure that the children in your home develop at a healthy rate?
What does it mean to empower survivors of sexual violence?
Enter the New York City Family Justice Centers (FJC). Started by the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, each borough has its own, each co-located with a District Attorney’s office. The center serves as a one-stop shop, a hub where clients can access many services related to sexual violence, all in one place. All services are free and confidential, and available regardless of language, income, or immigration status. Early this month, Dr. Ades and members of the EMPOWER lab were invited for a tour of the Queens FJC, to liaise with its staff and learn more about the services they offer.
The Queens Family Justice Center is open from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday, and they see six clients on a walk-in basis each day. Although all the FJCs serve the same essential functions, the Queens Family Justice Center is unique in that the borough it serves is the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world, and its clients are 79 percent foreign-born.
When a client comes in for intake, they first go through a metal detector and security check. They then speak to a staffer and are channeled to one or several of the agency partners within the building. The hallways are color-coded – one color for legal services, another for case management, a third for criminal justice, and so on – to help clients navigate as they access services:
Case managers from Safe Horizon, Sanctuary for Families, VIP, and Womankind can provide advice and referrals for public benefits, housing, and shelter within the center and assist with confidential safety planning. The Arab-American Family Support Center focuses its case management on Arabic-speaking clients; Garden of Hope works primarily with Mandarin-speaking populations.
The center is well-equipped with legal services, including immigration and family law from Sanctuary for Families, the Urban Justice Center, and Her Justice. These lawyers and paralegals can help clients with family law issues, plus the many additional issues that can emerge for immigrants.
Clients can also meet with a representative from the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), the agency that administers public assistance benefits, to troubleshoot issues with their cash benefits, Medicaid, and food stamps.
A team from Sanctuary for Families provides comprehensive child and family services, including individual therapy, therapeutic care activities, family programs, and a summer group therapy program for teens. They welcome any child 3 and older into their colorful and inviting Children’s Room on-site, so that parents can seek services without being concerned about childcare.
The police department also has an office on-site, for victims who may want to file a report. Additionally, each precinct in Queens has a Safe Horizons representative in the police office, a program that New York City is planning to roll out in every borough. This means that in addition to the option to take report the violence to law enforcement, victims can also choose to first speak with a counselor and explore the options available to them.
As is the case with each of the five borough’s FJCs, the Queens Family Justice Center is co-located with the Queens District Attorney Domestic Violence Bureau. In addition to answering clients’ questions about the criminal justice process, orders of protection, and assisting clients with safety planning, the Queens DA is a national leader in the use of “evidence-based prosecutions” for victimless crimes. Often, victims of domestic violence will elect to drop the charges brought against their abuser, to avoid the experience of testifying at trial, which can be traumatizing, humiliating, and time-consuming; for fear of retribution by the abuser; for fear of ruining the life of the abuser; or for a variety of other reasons. When this happens, the DA’s office uses medical records, 911 call scripts, police and witness accounts, admissions made by the defendant, cellphone records, photographs of injuries, and other evidence in the pursuit of justice. Largely as a result, Queens county has the highest domestic violence conviction rate in New York City, and its staff tour the country sharing best practices with other prosecutors. This practice raises larger questions of empowerment when someone decides that they do not wish to pursue legal action against an abuser; the DA’s priority is keeping society as a whole safe, which may mean that they choose to not prioritize a specific victim’s wishes. We were curious – where does this fit in with the more empowering and client-centered approach of the FJC, in a world where is no one-size-fits-all solution?
We at the EMPOWER Lab were interested to learn about the FJC’s mission, and appreciative of the staff for taking the time to show us around and answer our questions. We were excited for next steps: What might our newfound connection mean for the EMPOWER Lab and Dr. Ades’ EMPOWER clinic, and how can we leverage this link to best serve the clients of both organizations? By better understanding the resources available in the community, we can connect our clients to what they need, and because Dr. Ades’ EMPOWER clinic is referral-only, developing a pipeline for referrals is critical to making sure that the clients who need her services are able to access them.
The Queens Family Justice Center is located next to the Kew Gardens Courthouse at 126-08 82nd Avenue, Kew Gardens, NY 11415. This walk-in center is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and their phone number is 718 575 4500.
If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual violence, help is available. In emergencies, where a person’s life or physical safety is at risk, always call 911. For information and help 24 hours a day, call New York City’s toll-free, confidential Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE (1-800-621-4673), or call 311 and ask for the Domestic Violence Hotline, or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233