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Published: Sunday, 10/21/2007

Defiance center is more than shelter

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Pam Weaner, director of the Family Justice Center of Northwest Ohio, says her center dishes out legal aid for victims of domestic violence and while at it, her clients can get food from the well-stocked kitchen. Pam Weaner, director of the Family Justice Center of Northwest Ohio, says her center dishes out legal aid for victims of domestic violence and while at it, her clients can get food from the well-stocked kitchen.
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DEFIANCE - Behind an unassuming storefront in downtown Defiance, a sanctuary of sorts exists for families whose lives have been marred by domestic violence.

It's not a shelter, but a well-thought out center where victims and their children can come for help with whatever it is they need, be it legal advice, medical attention, housing, child care, or simply food and diapers. There is a bright-colored playroom, a teen room with video-game systems, an inviting meditation room, a well-stocked kitchen, as well as offices where social service providers either work full time or come when called.

"It used to be that we'd tell people, if you need food stamps, go to Job and Family Services. If you need housing, go to New Home Development. If you need food, go to the food bank," said Pam Weaner, managing attorney for Legal Aid of Western Ohio and director of the Family Justice Center of Northwest Ohio.

The beauty of the year-old family justice center is that victims of family violence may now come to one location, tell their story one time, fill out one form, and get all the help they need.

"The victim doesn't have to call all these agencies. We do it for them," Ms. Weaner said. "If they need police, police will come here. If they need to go to court or see the prosecutor, we have an advocate who will go with them who can help them tell their story."

The six-county justice center, which has similar locations in Bryan, Napoleon, Ottawa, Wauseon, and Van Wert, is a concept that a group of determined advocates against domestic violence in Wood County hopes to bring to Bowling Green.

Alicia's Voice is a grass-roots group that formed after Alicia Castillon, 30, and her boyfriend, John C. Mitchell, 22, were shot to death in Castillon's Bowling Green home March 29.

Charged in the killings is Craig Daniels, Jr., a former boyfriend of Castillon's who had a history of stalking and assaulting her.

Castillon's mother, Kathy Newlove, said that since her daughter's death she has become convinced of the need for a family justice center locally. She said at least 25 women in abusive relationships have contacted her directly to find out where they could get help.

"That's how desperate these women are," she said.

Though every case is different, many victims in need of assistance have children in tow, no money or transportation, and an immediate need to be safe. Ms. Newlove said they don't need to be told the names and address of 16 agencies to see for help.

"Typically you're sending them to all these places and they are so overwhelmed that they end up going back to the abuser because it's easier," she said. "It's just easier."

In Defiance, Legal Aid of Western Ohio is the primary tenant at the family justice center. Mercedes Thompson, a domestic violence advocate who has worked for Legal Aid for 10 years, said the addition of the justice center has enabled her to do more than address clients' legal needs.

"We weren't reaching out in a way that was going to impact lives as a whole," she said. "Now we ask people, what can we do about your child care? What can we do about your housing? Do you have adequate food? Do you have adequate clothing? Do you need transportation?"

In addition to the legal and social services, the center hosts support groups, organizes family outings, holds birthday parties, and offers other activities for survivors and their children.

The six-county center was one of 15 family justice centers established in the United States through President Bush's 2003 Family Justice Center Initiative. The only rural site chosen, Defiance and the surrounding counties started their centers with a $1.2 million federal grant and lots of community support.

In Bowling Green, the effort is getting off the ground with fund-raisers like a golf outing and on Nov. 10 a dance at Nazareth Hall near Grand Rapids.

Alicia's Voice so far has raised $19,000, has $20,000 pledged, and has been offered a building free of charge by a Bowling Green businessman.

Still, Ms. Newlove said it may take county or state financial assistance to get the center opened fast enough to make a difference.

The killing on Thursday of a North Baltimore woman refocused the sense of urgency in her mind.

"Somebody has got to help us because the numbers are astounding," she said, referring to the fact that nearly all of the homicides in Wood County since 2002 have been acts of domestic violence.

"That's just overwhelming and the public has got to know this can't go on. We've got to do something, and we've got to do something now."

Erica Messenger, a board member of Alicia's Voice, said she was inspired after visiting the Defiance center and hopes Wood County can duplicate many of its features.

"It wasn't at all what I expected when I got there," she said. "I expected an office space, but it's really homey. It was just a really comfortable environment."

Ms. Messenger, a cousin of Alicia Castillon, said the group is determined to get a justice center opened in Bowling Green. It is working with the courts, police, job and family services, domestic violence shelters, and other agencies that serve victims.

She credits her aunt, Ms. Newlove, for making it happen.

"Almost immediately she said we have to look outward and look forward and yes, keep this tragedy fresh and make sure everyone understands the magnitude of this, but this is much bigger than just what happened to Alicia," Ms. Messenger said.

Ms. Weaner, who has been working with Alicia's Voice, said that to her knowledge, Wood County would have the first family justice center started and led by families and survivors of domestic violence.

"I'm excited about it," she said. "I think they're going to unite people who otherwise wouldn't be united because their focus is on the right place - keeping victims safe."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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