When the Office of Criminal Justice Programs made it known a half-decade ago that it was offering grant programs to help establish family justice center programs in various communities throughout the state, Scott County General Sessions Court Judge James L. (Jamie) Cotton Jr. spearheaded an effort to see funding obtained to establish such a center in Scott County.
The formal start of the Scott County Family Justice Center project was in mid 2016. Scott County made an application for grant funding, hired Christy Harness as the project coordinator, and went about the myriad tasks associated with establishing a center that would coordinate services for victims of domestic violence, elder abuse, sexual assault and other offenses.
This month will mark three years since the Scott County Family Justice Center officially opened its doors to victims. In that three-year span, the FJC has assisted 471 clients, as of last month, and made 3,300 contacts.
Those 471 people served by the FJC represent more than 2% of all the people in Scott County. According to Harness, 86% have been female and 12% have been male (the others preferred to remain anonymous).
For those who still aren’t completely aware of what the SCFJC is, perhaps the easiest way to describe it is to compare it to the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands, which most Scott Countians are more familiar with. According to Harness, the original purpose of the Children’s Center was to help child victims of abuse and neglect by centralizing services so that they didn’t have to retell their story and relive their experiences over and over. The FJC serves the same purpose, except primarily for an older clientele.
“We’ve been able to serve some victims since we opened who were also victims prior to the Family Justice Center, and it does my heart good when we hear them say, ‘Man this place has really made a difference this time,’” said Harness, when asked how the FJC has made navigating the legal process easier for victims.
“A lot of times what happened before, if an individual needed an order of protection, they would go to the Circuit Court Clerk’s office and they would see Donnie Phillips and Donnie would sit down and assist them with that paperwork,” Harness said. “From there, if the judge or the magistrate was in the building, they would be able to swear that paperwork out in front of the judge or magistrate and figure out whether they had met the requirements to have that exparte put into place. Sometimes if the magistrate wasn’t in the building, they would have to go to Oneida and meet with the magistrate, then bring the paperwork back to Huntsville to Mr. Phillips, and then a court date would be set. Now, they don’t leave the Family Justice Center until they know for sure whether that order has been approved or denied, and they’re able to immediately have an advocate walk down the hallway and sit and talk to them.”
Two employees of the district attorney general’s office work within the Family Justice Center, including a domestic violence prosecutor.
The Scott County Family Justice Center was one of the first FJCs in rural Tennessee — just like the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands was one of the first child advocacy centers in rural Tennessee. Harness doesn’t hesitate when asked what makes that distinction possible.
“The people,” she said. “When something happens in Scott County, people come together.”
Harness acknowledges that the FJC has had its battles, but said the people help sustain the effort.
“When there’s a need in Scott County, people come together and meet that need,” she said. “It’s not one certain person, but it’s a group of people who say that people deserve to have the same services in Scott County that they would have in urban areas. A victim is a victim no matter where they are.”
There are a number of organizations that serve as community partners, such as Scott Appalachian Industries, which offers a sexual assault intervention program.
Harness said the important thing to point out is that while some people were initially unhappy with the idea of an FJC in Scott County, fearing that it was intended to replace existing services, the intent isn’t to replace the services that are already provided by various agencies but to enhance those services.
As a result, more victims are now coming forward.
Harness points out that, early on, it was hard to find statistics on sexual assault in Scott County because most cases weren’t being reported to law enforcement.
“But we were hearing from the mental health professionals that a large number of people who were coming in for services were reporting sexual assaults, whether as a child or as an adult,” she said. “We knew there were people who were victims of sexual assault who weren’t being served.”
At that point, Harness turned to SAI to ask if that organization — which traditionally has assisted Scott Countians with intellectual disabilities — would serve as the community’s sexual assault services center. There was grant funding available, but a 20% match was required.
“I didn’t feel at that point that I could approach County Commission and ask for more funding,” Harness said.
She turned to SAI, and said Kaprecia Babb didn’t bat an eye.
“She said, ‘Will this help Scott County?’” Harness said. “I said, ‘Yes it will.’ And she said, ‘Well, then let’s find a way to make this happen.’”
Pulling those resources together would not be possible in just any rural community, Harness said, but Scott County is unique.
“Every organization that we have now was already in existence in Scott County. It was just bringing everybody together and talking openly in meetings and figuring out how we could fill the gaps,” she said.
Tennessee now has more family justice centers than any state besides California, and the 8th Judicial District, which Scott County is a part of, is the first judicial district in Tennessee with two FJCs.
Scott County is serving as a model for other communities that are looking to open FJCs of their own, including Claiborne County, Anderson County and Overton County.
Harness has spent most of her professional career working in roles similar to the one she is in now, beginning with a three-year stint with Scott County’s women’s shelter in 1998 before a 15-year tenure with CASA. Given her experiences, she knew the problems that existed in Scott County before taking the job at the FJC.
“Are we perfect? No. But we sure have come a long way since 1998, with the things that are offered for victims,” she said.
Despite seeing the dark side of Scott County on a daily basis, Harness said she enjoys her job and the opportunity to assist victims.
“I love what I do. I love the people I get to work with,” Harness said. “Do I wish we didn’t need a Family Justice Center? Absolutely. But I feel blessed to be the person who gets to come into this office every day and get to try to make a difference.”
Simultaneously with the establishment of the FJC, Scott County has launched a domestic violence court, which is intended to hold offenders accountable and increase victim safety. Harness said that will make a difference in the domestic violence that is occurring in Scott County.
“Last year alone, there were over 600 compliance reviews,” she said. “The offender has to go before the judge and report on what they’re doing and whether they’re compliant with what’s been ordered. That’s something that wasn’t necessarily happening before, because the staff wasn’t in place.”
Scott County also has a batterers’ intervention program to try to stop domestic violence before it spirals out of control.
Through the efforts that are being made, Harness said, she feels domestic violence cases will eventually decrease in Scott County.
Meanwhile, continued education is key. Harness said that domestic violence is a subject that is still too taboo in this rural community. Too often, victims don’t really see themselves as victims, even though they’re being abused.
“We need to hold people accountable, and we just need to talk about (the issues),” she said. “Talking is key. Hopefully people are reading the articles (that the FJC is publishing) and helping to educate themselves so they know what to do when they know someone who is being assaulted. Whether it’s physical or verbal or sexual or financial, they need to know that there is someone to talk to, and that they can come here to the Family Justice Center and we can connect them with the resources that they need.”
Need help? Contact the Family Justice Center at (423) 663-6638, by email at email@example.com, or online at www.scfjc.org.