When Danielle A. Fleisher was 24 weeks pregnant with her twin daughters, she was violently assaulted by their father while holding her 1-year-old daughter at the time.
“The assault was so bad that it caused my twins to be born prematurely,” recalled Fleisher of Moorpark. “My twins are now developmentally delayed and receive in-home therapeutic services.”
Today, Fleisher is the co-chair of a women’s survivor group called VOICES of Ventura County, which comprises survivors working together to bring awareness to the community and support to victims as they become survivors.
“The biggest misunderstanding is that domestic violence only happens within drug-related or dysfunctional homes,” Fleisher said. “My life was as normal as it could get and I still got assaulted. The reality is that it can happen to anyone at any time.”
VOICES of Ventura County is among the agencies that’s joined the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office to create a Family Justice Center where victims will feel respected, understood and empowered as they learn about the many resources available.
“This effort is about making a one-stop location that will aid victims of domestic violence,” Fleisher said. “Having a one-stop location that has multiple agencies housed in it will make it so that the victims will have the assistance that they need and not go back to the abuser.”
The Family Justice Center will serve as the integration point for many of the services that are currently out there, said Michael Jump, chief deputy district attorney, and chief of victim and community services with the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office.
“The whole idea is to organize existing services into a single point of access, and then to create an environment within the Family Justice Center that is focused on making that access as easy as possible for the victims it will serve,” said Jump of Santa Paula.
Ventura County has a tremendous community of services, from both the local and county government to nonprofit and community-based providers, Jump noted.
“The center will create a space for them to work together for the common interests of the victims they serve and at no cost to the providers,” he said. “Their partnership will involve providing the same services they currently provide, only doing so at the Family Justice Center with space provided for them and as an integrated part of the team.”
The Family Justice Center is currently in the planning stages, Jump said.
Workgroups are meeting monthly to tackle various aspects of the center’s development to include a governance and facilities workgroup, engagement and outreach workgroup, funding and sustainability workgroup, return on investment and benchmarking workgroup, and a service delivery and operations workgroup.
“All of these workgroups are focused on developing the foundation for the Family Justice Center,” Jump said.
A Family Justice Center foundation has been established to begin raising the funds needed for this effort, and the search is ongoing for a suitable facility. The center will be funded by a public-private partnership between local and county governmental agencies and nonprofits contributing staffing and services, and by the Ventura County Family Justice Center Foundation and governmental and nonprofit grants.
“We hope to have a facility within the next two years but its location will depend on the availability of the right facility,” Jump said.
When it opens, the Family Justice Center will offer a broad range of services, including safety planning, child care, financial counseling, emergency shelter, spiritual support, civil legal assistance and victim compensation application assistance.
“Domestic violence in Ventura County is on the rise,” Fleisher said. “The reason for this is due to the lack of services that are available to victims so they end up going back with the abuser and it ends in a murder homicide. A lot of domestic violence goes undetected until it’s too late due to the lack of services available and the convenience of getting to the services that are available.”
Ventura County does have a high rate per capita of domestic violence calls to law enforcement, Jump said.
“The reasons for that could be a greater level of trust with law enforcement in our county or high incidence of domestic violence in our community,” Jump said.
For a variety of reasons, the crimes noted — and in particular domestic violence — are significantly underreported. The following statistics, which are specific to Ventura County, include 5,500 allegations of child abuse and neglect; 3,900 allegations of elder abuse; 200 allegations of sexual assault; and 7,200 allegations of domestic violence.
There are several myths regarding domestic violence, Jump said.
“The biggest myth is that domestic violence impacts only the people experiencing it,” Jump said. “The reality is that domestic violence incidents have a ripple effect on the entire community.”
Law enforcement spends a significant amount of time responding to the same addresses, mental and physical health services are often repeatedly needed, victims miss work affecting employers, “and yet all of these impacts are secondary to the long-term effects on children who grow up suffering and witnessing verbal and physical abuse,” Jump said.
He noted the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, which showed that these children have exponentially higher risks of committing crimes or becoming victims in the future.
“In addition, children growing up in domestic violence homes are at astronomically higher risk of becoming drug users, suffering from mental disorders, becoming obese, smoking and a litany of other risky behaviors,” Jump said.
A major myth about domestic violence is that the victims are “weak” — and that it’s easy to “just leave” an abusive relationship, said Rachael Watkins,of Ventura, crime victims’ assistance program supervisor with the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office.
The fact that people stay in an abusive relationship doesn’t make them “weak,” she said.
“Through manipulation and coercion, abusers often chip away at the victim’s self-esteem,” Watkins said. “Sometimes this process happens so subtly that the victim is unaware of the psychological, emotional and other types of abuse that often precede a physically violent attack.”
Domestic violence victims are often presented with the question: Why don’t you just leave?
“No one wants to be hurt, beaten or made to feel inferior. Victims stay in abusive relationships for a number of reasons,” Watkins said. “They may have nowhere to go. They may believe that it is better for their children to stay in the home as a family. For many, the reason they stay is because of fear.”
Other common reasons for not leaving an abusive relationship include love, family, money, shame and isolation, Watkins noted.
“The reality is that leaving an abusive relationship is often the most dangerous time for a victim,” said Watkins, further adding that statistics show that 75 percent of women who are murdered by their batterers are killed when they leave or after they leave the relationship.
“Whether through physical abuse, financial abuse, emotional abuse or a combination of all three, the resources needed to safely escape an abusive relationship are often not readily available,” Watkins said. “We continue to strive to take the focus off of the often judgmental thoughts behind why a victim may stay, and turn that focus into what we can do as a community to make things better.”
Cyndy Taschman’s experience with violence occurred in 2014 when she was walking home from the library. A stranger jumped out of his car, came running up to her and tried to pull down her shorts.
“I was able to prevent this from occurring, went running after him, which scared him off, got his license plate number, saw him arrested and finally convicted nearly 18 months later,” recalled Taschman of Oxnard.
Because she works at the Government Center, it was very easy for her to go to court every single time — with 18 continuances — because it was a five-minute walk from her office.
“If I did not have easy access to the courthouse and to the victim advocates and to the deputy district attorney who tried my case, I would not have been as involved, and the outcome of the case would have been very different,” Taschman said. “Because I was here, I could see it through and make sure the case was not just dropped; and a criminal was taken off the streets and sent to jail before he could attack someone else.”
Her motivation in pursuing the case was to make sure her attacker did not victimize anyone else.
“In the end, it doesn’t matter how violent the crime is — all of us who have been victimized need the assistance which will be offered at the Family Justice Center,” Taschman said.
“We need someone to help us through the myriad of steps to see a case through to trial, to inform us of what we need to do to seek assistance from the state fund for victims, to let us know what our options are — and to provide a huge amount of emotional support,” Taschman added. “This is essential for anyone who has been violated in any way. This is what turns us from victims into survivors.”
The ultimate goal of the Family Justice Center is to integrate high quality, committed partners in a safe, collaborative center with the resources to provide hope and healing to people impacted by violence and abuse, Jump said.
“What we are striving for is to save lives of victims in danger and to change the trajectory of children at risk of later criminal behavior, victimization and physical and mental-health issues resulting from exposure to violence,” Jump said.
The Family Justice Center is so important to Ventura County, Fleisher said, “because there is too much domestic violence going on in our county and too many innocent people, including children, who are directly affected by it.”
“As a community we need to stand up and fight for what’s right and protect our people,” Fleisher added. “A Family Justice Center would provide this and would be able to help so many people — including myself.”
For more information, call the Crime Victims’ Assistance Unit at the District Attorney’s office at 805-654-3622.