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Domestic violence agency, Forsyth County DA’s Office partnering to help victims
Family haven 2 WEB
Leaders at Family Haven of Forsyth County, the Forsyth County District Attorney's Office, law enforcement agencies and other community stakeholders gathered this week for a press conference about how additional funding from a federal grant will increase advocacy for and support of domestic violence victims. - photo by For the Forsyth County News

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Abuse is not just physical violence

• Physical: beating, pushing, hair pulling, slapping, biting and other acts of physical mistreatment

• Emotional: name-calling, verbal threats, attempts at control, neglect or other acts that make a partner feel devalued

• Sexual: any unwanted sexual contact, sexual pressuring, sexual threats or forced sexual relations

• Economic: controlling access to finances, legal document or other important papers, interfering with work performance through harassing activities, frequent phone calls or refusing to allow a partner to go to work or school

• Psychological: brainwashing a partner or trying to confuse them about reality, monitoring them through technology or other means so the abuser appears omnipresent, switching from violent to kind behavior to regain trust

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How to help end family violence

• Do not be afraid to speak up about the issue

• Domestic violence is not a private matter. Community resources are available for survivors, but the only way to make changes is to know about the laws and their strengths and limitations

• Participate in events that support the cause, or volunteer for local organizations addressing the issue

When Forsyth County Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills received a call saying her mentee had been in a fight at school, she, along with the child’s teachers, were shocked.

“The school had never seen that behavior in him before,” Mills said.

A few days prior to the fight, the boy had visited his mother for the first time in months, where he learned some upsetting news.

“I went to the school and talked to him,” Mills said, “and he broke down and started to cry, and it was from seeing his mother because she had gotten back with a man that she had been with before [who the boy] had seen rip her hair out of her head.”

Family Haven, a nonprofit domestic violence shelter for women and their children, recently announced its new project, the Family Violence Counseling and Outreach Services Program, which is aimed to increase support to victims by giving their advocates — shelters, law enforcement and prosecutors — another resource.

Mills, who had been mentoring the student for more than a year when the incident occurred, had no idea the boy had domestic violence in his background.

He represents the one in 15 children who are exposed to intimate partner violence each year, 90 percent of whom are eyewitnesses to the violence.

Now, thanks to a federal grant recently awarded to Family Haven of Forsyth County and the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office, the boy will have access to free counseling services.

With the $77,706 awarded from the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s (CJCC) Victims of Crime Act grant program (VOCA), the agency and DA’s office will provide free counseling and legal advocacy services to a potential 750 victims and their families in Forsyth County.

Family Haven has previously received about $116,000 in VOCA grants.

In addition, the Board of Commissioners voted in December to allocate $14,570 of the county’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget to Family Haven’s counseling program.

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“We’re the people who get there when everything is broken”

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Forsyth County had 801 reported incidents of family violence in 2014, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

However, in 2015, Family Haven served 2,962 victims and their dependent children, providing them with emergency shelter, transitional housing, a 24-hour crisis line, legal support and child advocacy.

From Oct. 1, 2014 through Sept. 31, 2015, the District Attorney’s Office said 992 victims were served through the court system — none of whom received services from Family Haven.

These numbers indicate the county has a problem, Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman said, a past board member for Family Haven.

“Coming from the law enforcement side of things, we are the first responders,” Freeman said. “We’re the people who get there when everything is broken. [But] we’re willing to admit we have a drug problem. We’re willing to admit we have a domestic violence problem now.

“We’re willing to take those challenges on; this is just the next step.”

Cumming Police Department Deputy Chief Aletha Barrett said she is thankful for the new program.

Having spent 20 years in law enforcement — the last 10 in Forsyth County — she has worked as a crime scene investigator, a first responding officer on patrol and a coroner.

“I’ve held the hand of a child who was sexually assaulted. I’ve held the hand of a mother who just lost her son because he was killed by her boyfriend,” she said. “These are all domestic violence incidents. I’ve held the hand of a 16-year-old who was just raped by her uncle in a domestic violence situation. We’re the first initial counselors; we’re the therapists when we arrive on scene. With this partnership, it kind of gets the monkey off our backs.

“Because of the county commissioners, because of CJCC, we have someone who we can send these children to, these victims to, these victims of sexual assault. Now our officers, our deputy sheriffs, have relief. We have someone that we can say ‘Hey, we have someone that you can receive counseling from.’”

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“Empower them so that they will be able to go forward”

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District Attorney Penny Penn said in addition to helping domestic violence victims, the program may also help her office prosecute cases.

“The more typical crimes are those where the victims are strangers to the perpetrators and they are willing and eager to participate in the prosecution of the cases and want to see the offender punished,” she said.

Victims of domestic violence often are scared of repercussions — perceived or real — of prosecuting someone they know, especially a family member.

“[Now] we can provide an additional resource, and it’s one that can really focus on the victim … to provide education so that they can protect themselves and their families,” Penn said, “but also empower them so that they will be able to go forward, [and] so that we will be able to complete prosecution of these cases.”