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Family Justice Center turns heartache into hope


Lake Oswego volunteers thrilled to see opening of comprehensive care facility

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Lt. Graham Phalen of the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office and Melissa Erlbaum, executive director of Clackamas Womens Services, are proud and happy about the new A Safe Place Family Justice Center, which opened last month in Oregon City.In her long career as a provider of services for women, the most satisfying event ever for Melissa Erlbaum was the opening last month of A Safe Place Family Justice Center in Oregon City. It is the first such center in the Northwest.

“I so believe in this model,” said Erlbaum, who has been executive director of Clackamas Women’s Services for the past six years. “In my 17 years in the field I’ve seen a lot of really hard things, and the one thing that really struck me was when women chose to go back to their abusive situation. That was easier than navigating the system. It was so broken that it was wearing people down. It was breaking down what little spirit they had left.”

Now the system is fixed. The Family Justice Center offers comprehensive services all under one roof in Oregon City. Instead of being pulled a dozen different ways as she seeks to escape from a potentially deadly domestic situation, an abused woman can obtain just about anything she needs in one place: a circuit video-conferencing system directly linked to a courthouse, which will let them apply for a restraining order from a safe distance; childcare and culturally-based services; immediate access to a wide range of services on site to reduce frustration and stress for victims; a secure and staffed play space for children that reduces the trauma of hearing the violence retold; and a safe environment for both participants and service providers.

“The Family Justice Center is a win-win for everyone,” Erlbaum said. “It’s more than just a one-stop shop for victims. The survivor can do whatever they want. They’re in control. In countless ways the new system is so much better.”

The new center is a milestone for so many people, including two Lake Oswego women, Ann Lininger and Susan Bartz, who have helped abused women for many years through their work with CWS. When they started they had little idea of the horror faced by women caught up in domestic violence, but they remained stalwart in their commitment to help abuse victims. They greet the new justice center like a dream come true.

“This is going to create quicker and more efficient ways for people in crisis to get help,” said Lininger, a former Clackamas County commissioner.

In an era of severe political discord, Lininger was happy to see people brought together for the purpose of bringing about the justice center.

“These are people who disagree strongly on many issues,” Lininger said. “They have united around the shared value of protecting families and kids. There has been a hunger for something like this.”

“Some of these individuals don’t play much in the same sandbox,” said Bartz. “The justice center is something everyone can get on board with because it’s a cost-effective way to save us hardship and wasted resources. We are very lucky to have a family justice center right in our own backyard.”

Bartz became active in CWS 15 years ago when her church, Rolling Hills Community Church in Tualatin, urged its members to help people outside the church. Bartz has had her successes, such as expanding the number of homes for abused women and their children and increasing attention given in schools to the subject of domestic violence, a development she calls “phenomenal.” Her work has also given her some horror stories that can scarcely be believed.

“One guy shot an infant while she was still in her mother’s stomach,” Bartz said. “Now the girl is older and the father is on parole. The mother is wondering if she should go back to the man so her daughter could have a father figure.

“A woman might think a man is charismatic, wonderful and awesome. He has a great job. But sometimes a man saves the abuse for someone he really loves.

“One time a man took his wife to Mount Hood. He stripped her naked, beat her up and left her there. You cannot rationalize such irrational behavior.”

Then there was the well-known and highly regarded member of local government.

“He was well respected for the job he did during the day,” Bartz said. “But it was a whole different story at night.”

As bad as the hitting is, most abused women think there is something worse.

“If you ask survivors about physical, emotional, financial or spiritual abuse, 90 percent say they would rather be abused physically than emotionally,” Bartz said. “The onus of the problem is put on the victim. They need to realize they should not be ashamed for what they suffer.”

Of the sad statisics associated with domestic violence, the saddest is that there have been more than 100 deaths in Oregon over the past two years.

But now that the doors of the Family Justice Center have opened, statistics are expected to drastically improve.

“At similar centers in other states there was an 85 percent reduction in homicide rates in the second year,” Bartz said. “That is a pretty empowering experience. Instead of having to make 18 different stops, now an abused woman in this county only has to make one.”

Survivors of domestic violence will be able to talk with a counselor, file a police report, find a battered-women’s shelter, join a support group and get a restraining order from a judge — all in one building called A Safe Place.

A Safe Place is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. All of the on-site partners, including a couple of organizations dedicated to providing culturally specific service to the Latino population, were confident that any service gaps would be worked out since the center already can help victims.

“I expect the Family Justice Center to serve over 2,000 women a year,” Erlbaum said. “It can provide anything you can think of — spiritual support, housing services, legal counseling, financial support services.”

A Safe Place houses eight governmental and nonprofit organizations to offer “one-stop shopping so we can provide wraparound services to victims, so families don’t have to go place-to-place,” Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts said. “Our goal in talking with survivors is to let them know that when they’re ready to leave, we’ll be ready to help them, and what we’ve seen is that they’ll make that call if we’re not judging them for staying with their abuser.”

The Family Justice Center was originally a goal of Roberts’ and the cause was taken up by Erlbaum when she joined CWS six years ago.

Clackamas County cut the ribbon Dec. 10 on the facility, among the largest dedicated to preventing domestic violence in the state. Roberts originally proposed that the building would be even larger. Although the Children’s Center ended up building its own 10,000-square-foot building in 2011, it remains one of the Family Justice Center’s eight off-site partners.

Now, thanks to A Safe Place Family Justice Center, a victim of domestic violence can stay instead of go. Her odds of surviving and achieving a successful new life for herself will go way, way up.

A Safe Place Family Justice Center is located at 256 Warner Milne Road in Oregon City. For more information, call Erlbaum at 503-655-8600 or visit cwsor.org.

— Clackamas Review News Editor Raymond Rendleman contributed to this story.

What donations can do at the Family Justice Center:

$1,000 = 14 hotel vouchers for the times when the center cannot provide shelter and there is an extreme need.

$500 = Cost of leasing a printer/fax/scanner for the community-based, counseling and youth prevention programs.

$250 = Snacks for one year for one of 12 teen groups in elementary/middle/high schools across Clackamas County.

$100 = Two tanks of gas for the shelter van, which takes participants to important appointments.

$50 = Two large packages of diapers or two weeks’ worth of paper products at the shelter.

$25 = A one-week bus pass so a survivor can travel independently.

— See more at cwsor.org/donate.

Cliff Newell can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 503-636-1281, ext. 105.