FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — Often, some of the first people a victim of domestic violence talks to after an incident don’t necessarily have the training or ability to comfort and guide the person.
But thanks to a new project by Forsyth County Family Haven, in collaboration with multiple local entities, those victims will be able to get immediate help.
On Feb. 9, Family Haven announced its new project, Family Violence Counseling and Outreach Services Program.
Funds from the Victims of Crime Act Assistance Grant Program through the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council will assist Family Haven, in partnership with the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office, to provide free counseling services and additional legal advocacy services to potentially 750 victims and their families in the county.
Matching funds will come from the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners. Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said she hopes this project will show offenders that they can’t perform domestic violence in the county without facing consequences.
This project will meet an unmet need of victims of domestic violence and families in the community, said Family Haven Executive Director Shandra Dawkins.
“We felt like while Family Haven was going out and providing outreach services to the community and victims of domestic violence and those at risk, we knew there were more victims out there we weren’t reaching,” Dawkins said. “We want to be able to reach out to those individuals who would not even know about Family Haven and the services we have. This project opens up a larger arena to the entire community.”
According to data collected by the District Attorney’s Office, 992 victims were served through the court system from Oct. 1, 2014 through Sept. 31, 2015 — none of whom received services from Family Haven. Between Oct. 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, 751 victims went through the court system.
“This under-served population, without counseling and supportive services, will go untreated for the psychological effects of experiencing and or witnessing an act of crime, leading to further victimization,” Dawkins said.
Access to supportive services for domestic violence victims can also increase the chances victims will follow through with the court process against their assailants — requiring them to face real consequences or enter a program if convicted, Dawkins said.
Of the some 750 victims, 350 suffered domestic violence, according to Director of the Victim Witness Assistance Program at the District Attorney’s Office Beth Ready.
One important aspect of the new counseling services will be educating victims that the abuse they are suffering is wrong, because many may not have ever experienced anything different in relationships, Ready said. And while Ready’s office offers help, it is usually short-term. This project will allow for long-term therapy to break the cycle.
“After the arrest of an abuser, victims are often forced into making a hard decision of, ‘do I stay’ or ‘do I leave,’” Ready said. “While either decision is extremely difficult and is a long process, those victims who choose to leave their abusers are faced with quite the challenge. It’s an uphill battle.”
District Attorney for the Bell-Forsyth Judicial Circuit Penny Penn said she knows how hard it is to prosecute cases involving domestic violence crimes. She said this project will help empower victims to pursue cases against their abusers.
“This speaks to the uniqueness of domestic violence cases,” Penn said. “We can now provide an additional resource and it’s one that focuses on the victim.”
The law enforcement community also praised the program because it gives them someone they can refer victims to.
The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office has a victim advocate program, but according to Sheriff Ron Freeman, it can’t provide nearly as much support as what’s needed.
“There’s no problem with the people or their hearts,” Freeman said. “But when the victims exit the criminal justice system, we lose them. There are not a lot of services we can provide. The idea that we now can connect the DA’s office, the sheriff’s office and victim’s advocate programs and have someone to feed that into furthers our work. It’s what you expect out of Forsyth County.”