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Sonoma County’s Family Justice Center could close amid budget crunch

The Family Justice Center, a central hub of services for victims of domestic violence and elder abuse, is facing the threat of closure as Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch identifies up to $2.7 million in budget cuts to meet demands from the county administrator’s office.

The District Attorney’s Office is just one of more than two dozen county agencies asked to propose reductions as county government seeks to cut an estimated $50 million from its budget in anticipation of a sharp decline in tax revenues resulting from the pandemic-driven recession.

Ravitch, who oversees a department with a $31 million budget, has been tasked with cutting spending by about 8%. She said she is reluctantly proposing to cut funding for the Family Justice Center in order to keep prosecutors in the courtrooms, offering up a well-respected program as a sacrifice to meet the county’s budget targets. Ravitch said she could save the equivalent of two attorney positions by ending the District Attorney’s Office role as fiscal manager of the center, which is also staffed by local law enforcement agencies and victim service organizations.

“It’s very likely that the Family Justice Center is going to close,” Ravitch said. “It’s not an essential service, even though I consider it essential. My office’s essential work is to prosecute crimes.”

The Family Justice Center opened in August 2011 as a central place where victims of domestic abuse and other types of community violence could seek criminal charges against perpetrators while also receiving other services, such as counseling, legal aid, immigration assistance and crisis intervention support. The center is housed in a building at the northern end of the county complex on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa. Most of its work is funded by other organizations and grants.

About 50 people work out of the Family Justice Center, including employees from the Council on Aging, the YWCA, Catholic Charities, Legal Aid and Verity, a nonprofit providing counseling and other support for sexual assault and abuse survivors, according to the organization’s website. The Santa Rosa Police Department and Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office house their domestic violence units at the center.

The District Attorney’s Office’s current $31 million budget includes about $427,000 to pay for an executive director, administrative coordinator and 80% of pay for a receptionist at the Family Justice Center. The executive director position has been unfilled since Wes Winter left the job in January 2019 to take a position in Southern California.

The pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home orders have caused massive job losses and shut down Sonoma County’s hospitality-driven industries, drying up key sources of tax revenue for county government agencies. The full scope of those economic impacts are not yet known.

Ravitch acknowledged the annual budget process is part political dance. But she said that raising the possibility of closing the center was an authentic move because her office has little other than staff positions to cut. She questioned why county leaders each year ask departments to draw up potential cuts when they often manage to find the money to keep programs in the end.

“Every year I’m faced with a scenario whereby I’m asked to put together a budget with extensive cuts only to be told we found the money,” Ravitch said. “It’s an exhausting exercise that puts anxiety in everyone’s mind.”

Ravitch said that while she respects the difficult task at hand and the real fiscal challenges caused by the pandemic, she called out what she views as a lack of leadership from the Board of Supervisors.

“I’m frustrated I’m not being given more direction as I prepare for these astronomical budget cuts,” Ravitch said.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, who chairs the board, cautioned against underestimating the fiscal toll of the pandemic shutdowns on the county’s budget. She said the board “is very supportive of the Family Justice Center and its mission,” but they are facing tough decisions, including what should be considered an essential service.

“We need to get that right, so it’s entirely possible that we may have to think about some furloughs or concessions from employees,” Gorin said.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said that although she believes the county administrator must prepare agencies for the potential fiscal situation, she believes it was “unfair” to ask for across-the-board cuts without weighing the impacts. Zane was the sole supervisor to vote against a hiring freeze this week, a move she felt was too arbitrary at a time when the county may need more public health workers to respond to the pandemic.

“The board has literally put millions into the Family Justice Center,” Zane said. “This is an essential service and the District Attorney shouldn’t have to choose between this and prosecutors. It’s been the will of the board for years to support this.”

Christina Rivera, assistant county administrator who oversees the budgeting process, said the operational costs of county services grow faster than available resources every year, leading to hard choices at budget time even under good economic conditions. The budget reduction goal of $50 million was a “middle of the road” estimate, not the worst-case scenario and not the best outcome they could hope for given the unknown impact the pandemic will have on taxes, she said.

Rivera said the District Attorney’s Office is at a disadvantage because a recent contract negotiation had increased staffing costs, and the office was already faced with cutting about $730,000 from the new budget before the coronavirus-related shortfall. Now, the office must identify an additional $1.86 million in reductions, according to Rivera.

“I join the club that finds it stressful because it’s stressful for the central office to tell other departments to make cuts,” Rivera said. “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best is better than not being prepared and running out of time to pivot.”

Ravitch first announced she may close the center on a local radio program June 11, surprising her own board of directors for the Family Justice Center Foundation.

Scott Bartley, a former Santa Rosa city councilman and board member, said the news came as a shock.

“It’s an incredibly important asset for the community,” Bartley said.

Central to this widely hailed concept, modeled in other places like Alameda and San Diego counties, is that victims are more likely to seek justice and improve their lives if problems are addressed in a holistic sense. Advocates for the model point out that a victim of violence might need more than criminal prosecution of their abuser but also housing assistance, counseling and other support in order to truly begin the path toward recovery.

Ravitch said the center has worked with more than 10,000 clients since it opened in 2011. It saw about eight to 10 clients each day before the coronavirus pandemic forced the agency to close its doors and begin offering services virtually.

In May, the center assisted 129 clients even though the facility is not open to the general public. So far in June, it has seen an uptick in need, with 92 people seeking services through the center’s programs, according to Ravitch.

The District Attorney’s Office manages many of the grants that help fund Family Justice Center services, including four major grants exceeding $2 million. The U.S. Department of Justice awarded the center with a three-year grant of $850,000 through its Office for Victims of Crime toward services for people who are dealing with multiple challenges at once, such as homelessness and abuse. The justice department’s Office on Violence Against Women awarded another $750,000 to support the center’s work, according to Ravitch.

The Family Justice Center’s homeless outreach team is supported with a $343,294 grant from the state Office of Emergency Services.

The Family Justice Center Foundation raised about $160,000 in 2019, according to Ravitch.

Bartley said that even the threat of closure will make it difficult for the foundation board to continue raising money for the organization, which is an unusual combination of public agencies and nonprofits. The foundation board does not oversee management of the center but helps oversee its budget and assets.

“Frankly it’s very disheartening when you hear on the radio that the center may cease to exist. Whether it’s true or not, it’s disheartening as a board,” Bartley said. “The public doesn’t want to hear this is a game that happens every year, the public wants to hear this is a solid organization and we want to give money to it.”

Bartley called the Family Justice Center “a brilliant idea” and said he’s heard from many people and their family members who have sought its services since he joined the board five years ago.

“It’s not an isolated thing that happens over there. We all experience this in our lives,” said Bartley.

Ravitch said most of the services provided at the Family Justice Center would continue to be available to victims if the center is closed. What would be lost is the ability for those victims to seek services in a focused manner — and it’s hard to calculate how many wouldn’t access those services if offered in multiple locations by agencies no longer linked through the center.

Madeleine Keegan O’Connell, chief executive officer of YWCA Sonoma County, said staff from her agency are the first to work with people who come into the center. They help them navigate the array of services available there, bringing in other agencies and nonprofits to work with them.

She pointed out that victims often must bring their children to appointments, and the center provided all of those services in one building.

“Closing the Family Justice Center would be a tremendous loss to our community,” Keegan O’Connell said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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