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Newark Center Offering Aide, Guidance to Domestic Abuse Victims is First of its Kind in NJ

September 12, 2010

Newark center offering aide, guidance to domestic abuse victims is first of its kind in N.J.

Alexi Friedman/The Star-Ledger

NEWARK — Before the Essex County Family Justice Center opened its doors in Newark this summer, women desperate to escape their abusive partners had limited options.

"There was no place to go to meet with an advocate in person, to address safety planning, or counseling," said Mary Housma, the center’s executive director. "You either had to go to a shelter or talk to someone on a hotline."

Now, New Jersey’s first family justice center serves as a central location for those domestic violence victims — who are overwhelmingly female — bringing together existing county services with those from local nonprofit groups.

From its temporary headquarters in the Wilentz Justice Complex at 212 Washington St., staffers guide victims through the initial crisis stage and discuss a range of services looking forward.

The center, which receives public and private grant money, has three full-time employees and a total program budget of $375,000. Representatives from six partner agencies, including the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, Essex-Newark Legal Services and Montclair-based Partners for Women and Justice, are on site to assist.

Partners for Women and Justice website

Nationwide, there are more than 60 family justice centers in two-dozen states, including three in New York City, said Gael Strack, who co-founded the first center in San Diego in 2002. There are also centers in Canada, England, Mexico and Sweden.

"What we’re learning is that domestic violence affects every ZIP code in America and around the world," said Strack, CEO of the National Family Justice Center Alliance in San Diego. "New Jersey is no different, and having a family justice center there will definitely increase public safety."

In New York City, the number of domestic violence homicides has been cut in half since the first center opened in 2005, Strack said.

The centers save lives, she said, and end up saving money. Nationwide, about 15 percent of law enforcement costs are spent on domestic violence-related crimes, totaling $67 billion a year, according to the National Institute of Justice.

So far, nearly 250 domestic violence victims have visited the Newark family justice center since it opened in late May for walk-in service only. Planning began in June 2007, after a Montclair man drowned his two young daughters in a bathtub, then hanged himself.

The man, Thomas Reilly, was separated from the girls’ mother, who had a restraining order against him following an assault charge.

That same year there were six domestic violence homicides in Essex County, and nine in 2008, State Police statistics show. Essex consistently ranks among the highest statewide in such homicides, along with restraining order requests and police-reported domestic violence incidents. Newark accounts for one-third of total domestic violence incidents reported.

"Unfortunately, if there is a legacy, a positive of any tragedy, it is that the fatalities drove this initiative," Houtsma said of the new family justice center. "Often it does take tragedy to really make systemic change and a commitment of resources to create a solution."