Building trust in the legal system

Officials hope newly dedicated Family Justice Center will better help victims


Dolphin-shaped seats, gingham-covered tables and paintings of smiling fish are hardly typical decor for a center that houses prosecutors, social workers, counselors and sheriff's deputies, all working cooperatively on domestic violence and child abuse cases. But organizers of the center are hoping the atmosphere at Harford County's new Family Justice Center in downtown Bel Air will help put victims at ease and encourage them to cooperate with investigators.

The waiting rooms are painted in soft, soothing hues and filled with quilts, books and toys. Murals of beach scenes accent the hallways. Staff offices and client interview areas are equipped with the latest technology. The spaces devoted to children are decorated with familiar characters and child-sized furniture.

"We need the victim on our side," said State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly. "The biggest problem is that victims get discouraged with the system. We have set up a place where they can feel comfortable."

Some 70 volunteers, most of them members of Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, painted and decorated the center, which is located on Main Street. They built storage areas, stocked it with emergency supplies and clothing and hung whimsical items - like scuba gear, oars and surf signs - on the walls.

"We hope we infused a lot of good energy into the walls," said Kim Privett, a church member. "This became a real mission for us."

Cassilly, who wanted a "victim-friendly" center, praised church members for "sharing your creative gifts and making a warm, welcoming haven for the children of Harford County."

The center, initially funded with a $165,000 state grant and formally dedicated last week, provides direct access to services that include shelter and legal representation. Information on criminal histories, whereabouts and activities, compiled by two newly hired clerks, is immediately available to investigators.

"The clerks are a big issue for us," Cassilly said. "We have the data, but if it's sitting in boxes and not in the system, it's not accessible. No one can make the connection to information that's sitting in someone's file cabinet."

Also, the sheriff's unit can handle protective orders and victims can readily contact counselors from the county's Spouse Abuse Resource Center. There is even babysitting available for parents who may be hesitant to discuss their issues in front of their children.

"The center is a single point of contact for victims in a place that is decent, clean and welcoming, " Cassilly said. "There is investigative efficiency with all the attorneys in one place and it's loaded with police. We are lessening the frustration, aggravation and inconvenience for victims."

The county handled 328 child sexual abuse cases last year and has projected an increase to 408 cases this year. Nearly 100 registered sex offenders are being monitored. Already this year, Cassilly's staff has worked on nearly 1,100 domestic violence cases and issued 1,467 protective orders.

County Executive David R. Craig, a former teacher, addressed an audience of about 100 at the dedication. He recalled an incident that took place in nearly 35 years ago in his first classroom. When he broke up an altercation between a young boy and girl, Craig was astonished that the boy saw nothing wrong in hitting the girl. He said the student had routinely witnessed his mother's boyfriend hit her.

"The biggest shock I had as a teacher was that everybody didn't grow up in a safe environment," Craig said. "We cannot afford not to deal with these issues. This center might not have helped that boy 100 percent, but it would have gone a long way to correcting that attitude. Thank you for making this building work."

Cassilly invited county and state officials to the dedication, including a former juvenile prosecutor on his staff who is now Maryland's first lady. Kendel Ehrlich toured the facility, extolled the ambience and lauded the staff, many of whom were former co-workers, for the "incredible forward thinking" involved in creating the center.

"This clearly is new, fresh and a larger space where you can deal with family issues all in one place," Ehrlich said.

She added that she hoped Harford's center would become a model for the rest of the state. "Steal all the ideas you want," Cassilly said.

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