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VOL. 126 | NO. 21 | Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Long-Sought Family Safety Center Moves Forward

By Bill Dries

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After years of talk and false starts, much of the local response to domestic violence will now be under one roof in Midtown.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell announced Monday the opening of the long-planned Family Safety Center in the Madison Professional Building at 1750 Madison Ave.

The center will open in the spring on the top floor of the six-story building after some renovation work. The Shelby County Crime Victims Center and the Mid-South Sexual Assault Resource Center (MSARC) will occupy space on the first floor.

The announcement came the week after year-end crime statistics for 2010 showed domestic violence was the only crime category in Shelby County to post an increase from previous years. The statistics measured an 8.7 percent increase in simple assaults, about two-thirds of which are the result of domestic violence.

The increase measures reported cases, an important distinction that discourages comparisons to other crime categories.

“When the police make a call at 2 o’clock in the morning and a victim who has been beaten up for years and years and years is finally ready to leave and make a break in that cycle – at 2 o’clock in the morning the police have nothing to offer,” said Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich. “So, when you come back the next day they’ve made up. He’s apologized. He’s promised never to do it again. They’re back in the home together and the opportunity is lost. Family Safety Center will help tremendously with that problem.”

The countywide anti-crime group Operation Safe Community plans to focus more on domestic violence in the next year said its leader, Bill Gibbons. The former district attorney general is now the state commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security. He remains head of Operation Safe Community.

Because simple assault is a misdemeanor, Gibbons believes that and the nature of domestic violence cases make recidivism an enduring problem.

“I think another part of that may be taking another look at our sentencing laws and trying to come up with some tougher sentences for repeat offenders,” he said. “Someone can be charged 10 times and frankly serve very little time.”

A quarter of all domestic violence cases in Shelby County involve a defendant who has been charged before, Gibbons said.

Memphis police made 91 domestic violence arrests in the first four days of the new year.

The family safety center idea was well thought out even before it had a place to call home. It remained as the consensus plan of a task force that explored the idea of a family court in 2008. The group of judicial officials, social services providers and political leaders were split on the viability and logistics of a court crossing civil and criminal lines devoted to handling all of the issues that could arise.

The group’s report was also issued just before political storm clouds gathered over the way MSARC, a key part of the overall response to domestic violence, was being run during the administration of former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton.

MSARC underwent its own transformation as a result, with the forensic examinations and counseling of juvenile rape victims moved to the Child Advocacy Center by the coalition of providers and law enforcement agencies directly involved in such cases.

The city also relinquished control of MSARC’s remaining duties within days of Herenton’s insistence that the agency would remain a part of city government as long as he was mayor.

MSARC still provides forensic exams and counseling to adult rape victims as part of the county’s Community Services division.

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