A quarter of Charlotte’s homicide cases involve domestic violence. This plan may help.

A quarter of Charlotte’s homicide cases involve domestic violence. This plan may help.

CHARLOTTE, NC (Jane Wester/Charlotte Observer) - About a quarter of the city's 84 homicide victims so far in 2017 have died through domestic violence, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police.

The victims have included a UNC-Charlotte professor, at least one pregnant woman and, on Saturday, a recent immigrant and her mother-in-law. Police said her husband shot and killed both women, and then himself, in an east Charlotte apartment.

In the next few years, city leaders hope to save lives and reduce Charlotte's domestic violence overall by opening a family justice center, based on a model that has worked well in other cities, CMPD Sgt. Craig Varnum said.

The center will bring together the resources available to domestic violence victims in Mecklenburg County under one roof, so victims have an easier and clearer time getting the help they need, said Varnum, who oversees CMPD's domestic violence unit.

"Instead of the victim having to go across the street to talk to a Safe Alliance advocate, down the road to talk to someone at Community Support Services to get counseling for their child, coming here to talk to a police officer and across the street to get a 50B (protective order), they go to one place," where representatives from all those agencies will be available, he said.

The center is only in planning stages, but Varnum said he expects it will open within three years. He said it's too early to estimate how much the center will cost.

Communities around the state and country have seen big reductions in domestic violence after opening family justice centers, Varnum said. In San Diego, where the country's first family justice center opened in 2002, he said domestic violence calls dropped 50 percent during a six-year period. Domestic violence homicides declined, too, he said.

Beyond the key goal of improving victims' lives, reducing domestic violence will help the city overall, Varnum said. Nearly 40 percent of the 52 homicide suspects identified so far this year have criminal histories including domestic violence, he said.

"We spend more time investigating crimes of domestic violence than any other crime that we respond to," he said. "We average about 35,000 calls per service per year that are related to domestic violence." Varnum said about 9,000 of those calls turn into criminal reports every year.

The Buncombe County Family Justice Center opened in Asheville in 2016, and Varnum cited research about what victims in Buncombe County dealt with before the center opened.

In the first three days after a victim asked for help – a request often sparked by a violent, traumatic incident, Varnum said – Buncombe County found that, on average, victims went to eight different locations, spoke with 12 people about their cases and filled out 61 pages of paperwork.

The traveling and bureaucracy are a particular challenge for victims who have come to an unfamiliar place without transportation and who may be accompanied by children, Varnum said. In contrast, the family justice center is meant to be a safe place where victims can get all the help they need.

Laura Lawrence, chief legal officer for Safe Alliance, which helps survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Mecklenburg County, will work with Varnum to lead the creation of the new center, she said Wednesday.

So far, the steering committee includes representatives from Pat's Place Child Advocacy Center, the district attorney's office, Child and Family Services Center and the county's Community Support Services, along with Safe Alliance and the police, Lawrence said.

In the new center, Lawrence said victims will meet first with a Safe Alliance representative, who will help them file a protective order and decide what to do next.

Filing protective orders sometimes involves waiting in court for hours, Lawrence said, which can be intimidating and stressful for victims, especially when they have children. As early as March – long before the new center opens – Safe Alliance clients will be able to stay in a safe place and make video calls into the courtroom instead of going in person, Lawrence said.