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MyCentralJersey.com Spotlights Middlesex County Family Justice Center

Inside the coordinated effort in Middlesex County to support victims of domestic violence

Cheryl Makin

Too many have come to Women Aware seeking help from domestic violence.

But it was one woman’s case which sparked the birth of the organization’s Family Justice

In 2017, Women Aware was involved in a domestic violence case that left a woman
broken, battered and brain damaged.

Woman Aware tried to help, as did other agencies and organizations. But, at the time, each worked in a vacuum, separate from each other. And something somewhere was missed.

He hurt her. He did not kill her. But he hurt her. Permanently.

It was then that Women Aware knew its vision for a better future for victims of domestic
violence must come to fruition as soon as possible.

That why the Family Justice Center (FJC) on the fourth floor at 100 Bayard St. in New
Brunswick was created.

Before the FJC, help for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Middlesex
County was found in different agencies and organizations. Each had their specific mission
and location.

Going from one to the other, a woman might have to tell her story again and again to find
the assistance she needed. The victim had to relive trauma every time the story was told.

“You come into the Family Justice Center and that’s what our intake specialist is here for.
You tell your story one time and then that begins the connection process to the services
that you need and want,” said Mildred Torres, director of the Middlesex County FJC. “So
it’s bringing services under one roof, increased safety for victims. These are goals that
across the nation at Family Justice Centers could hold perpetrators more accountable.”

By housing resources in a centralized location, the FJC is better able to break down
barriers between victims and services. FJC’s mission is to increase safety for victims and
children, reduce domestic violence homicides and recidivism among offenders. Resources
and support from community partners are also available at the FJC.

The FJC also aids victims of sexual assault and human trafficking.

“We decided it was time to get everyone to the table,” Torres said. “We started talking
about this and everybody realized what was going on − we were not connected; we were
not talking. We’re all doing great work. We’re all very good agencies, and we’ve been doing excellent work, but we’re not talking to one another. If we came together, just imagine all that we could do. Imagine the possibility if we all got together and worked together to help these victims each victim together. And that was a start. It was a journey.”

A coordinated effort
The Middlesex County FJC is modeled after the first facility of its kind − A Safe Place –
Family Justice Center – which opened 20 years ago in San Diego. This FJC, which
officially opened in December 2021, is one of five in the state, joining Essex, Monmouth,
Union and Morris counties. All have recently started meeting on a bi-monthly basis.

“We started meeting so we can talk and make it so that New Jersey is the best state in the
United States to serve a victim − to have the best available comprehensive victim services, be trauma informed, and give them the best all-around services,” Torres said. “They deserve it.”

The FJC is a hub in a wheel with spokes in 13 directions − agencies and organizations that are community partners building a coordinated community response to domestic violence.

Those include the Middlesex County Office of Human Services, Prosecutor’s Office, Board
of Social Services, and Center for Empowerment; Central Jersey Legal Services, Jewish
Family Services, New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency, Partners For
Women and Justice, American Friends Service Committee, Coming Home of Middlesex
County, Manavi, Town Clock Community Development Corporation and A Partnership for

“The communication between the community partners is key,” Torres said. “We have
personalized this. We have this communication in that they can walk in here or we can call
them and say, ‘Hey, we need your help. We need more eyes on this particular case.’ We can hold perpetrators to be more accountable and we are more accountable. And the victims have become what is most important. They’re going to get the best of the best from all of us. And we’re going to make sure that everyone gives their best − they are and they will. They committed − that’s a key word. Committed to the cause of safety and survival of victims and children.”

“Moving survivors beyond abuse is a community effort,” said Woman Aware CEO Phyllis
Yonta. “Working collaboratively, in one space, under the umbrella of the FJC, our purpose
is to radically improve family safety as well as offender accountability.”

Comprehensive services
Two years after its official opening, the FJC is a warm oasis of safety, recovery and
resources for the women, men and children who have come through its doors. A space of
support and solace is evident by the light blue walls, colorful children’s playroom, words of
hope and positivity etched on artwork and subtly placed stones, a waterfall and the faces
that greet every victim/survivor.

“That’s what we call them − victim/survivor,” Torres said. “Many of them still feel like a
victim and are in that stage. They haven’t moved on yet. Others may be closer to feeling
like a survivor − they have gotten out of the home. And so whatever they want, we respect
whatever they want to be called. We always meet the victim where they are at. We want
them to be comfortable.”

In 2022, Woman Aware served more than 2,500 survivors of domestic violence. The
organization sheltered 270 individuals, served more than 2,000 in safety net programs and responded to 6,000 multilingual hotline calls to provide support, information, safety
planning and resources. Women Aware has been the county’s domestic violence agency for more than 40 years.

Located in the heart of Middlesex County’s government center, the FJC could not be in a
safer spot. The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office Victim Witness Unit is a door away.

The FJC offers a 24-hour hotline, emergency shelter, legal advocacy, support groups and
children’s trauma therapy and support services.

Woman Aware also offers access to crisis intervention services, such as the Domestic
Violence Response Team, victim advocacy and a housing navigation program. Survivors
can get a myriad of information on everything from resume writing and job placement to
immigration and citizenship.

Woman Aware and the FJC also are spreading awareness about their programs and
services, reaching out to places where potential domestic violence victims may frequent −
churches, temples, schools, organizations, agencies, etc. Staff also is continuously
participating in trainings and self-care for their own mental health needs.

Walk-ins are welcome and appointments are not necessary. The FJC’s services are free.

Woman Aware and the FJC are funded through foundation, corporate, public and private
donations and grants. In November 2021, Women Aware received a $1 million grant from
the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Violence Against Women 2021 Improving
Criminal Justice Responses to Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, Sexual Assault, and
Stalking Grant Program. The grant provided the bulk of the funding for the Middlesex
County FJC.

Protection without consequences
Through the FJC, a victim has options. It is not the FJC’s place to tell a victim what to do,
but open their eyes to the options, Torres said.

For example, a victim wants help and to get protection for themselves and any children. If
they go directly to a police station and she has obvious injuries, she can get a restraining
order. If she accuses him and says she is abused, it’s a mandatory arrest. If she goes to
Family Court first, even if she is injured, she can obtain a restraining order, but there is
not a mandatory arrest.

Many times, the victim does not want their abuser arrested, Torres said.

“And they know people that don’t understand domestic violence will say, ‘What? Why
not?’” Torres said. “Because they still love this man. They need this person for two-income
housing. They think about the housing. They’re worried that if they are home, work part time or even if they work full-time − can they make it on that salary alone? What about
when they have children? There are a lot of barriers. Sometimes, it’s immigration issues.
There are a lot of reasons why a victim does not want to get their abuser in trouble or get
them in the criminal system.”

Everything is spelled out at the FJC. A victim can feel free to get protection with without
any consequences.

“It is the survivor’s choice to decide what direction in which to go,” Torres said. “They just
need to know that they have choice with no judgement. And that’s something that they
haven’t been given in this relationship with this person. They haven’t been given choice.”

This may be the first time a victim has been empowered. Empowerment is very important
for victims, Torres said. FJC has advocates − legal, intake specialist, Domestic Violence
Response Team, even Torres herself − that offer information, not advice. It is confidential
and supportive.

“Even for this person to say, ‘I believe you. I am listening to you. I’m giving you supportive
listening. I validate you,’ that is powerful,” Torres said. “She will feel this person is there
for her and is going to listen to her. And she can trust that person. And she’s going to
follow through for her.”

Torres said the advocate may not agree with the victim’s decision. There may be a danger
risk, and they do inform them of their thoughts about the danger, but the victim’s decision
is respected. Safety planning is huge, every step of the way, Torres said.

“We let them know they can change their mind at any time, and tell them, again, that we
are here for them,” Torres said. “We need to give that power back to the victim and
empower her to make that decision and know we’re there for them throughout the
journey. And if they decide to drop the restraining order, which many do, that’s okay. They
know we’re here. They know they can come back for different services.”

Torres said there is so much more that they can do, so much more that she wants to see
them do.

Torres and the FJC staff are passionate about their work keeping victims and children
safe. She loves her job and the people she helps and her co-workers but would give it all up for a day when domestic violence is no more, when there is no need for Woman Aware or a Family Justice Center.

“I would do so happily,” Torres said. “I love what we do. And it’s needed − the stories that
you hear. … But I would be happy to give up my position − to not have to have this job − if
domestic violence can end tomorrow. But the sad point is that it is not happening.”

The Middlesex County Family Justice Center is open for victims and survivors of domestic
violence and their families Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more
information about Women Aware and the FJC, go to womenaware.net/news/familyjustice-

email: cmakin@gannettnj.com
Cheryl Makin is an award-winning features and education reporter for MyCentralJersey.com, part of the USA Today Network. Contact:
Cmakin@gannettnj.com or@CherylMakin.