The Guilford County Family Justice Center in downtown Greensboro has been getting a lot of attention since it opened its doors in mid-2015 – and now the Guilford County Board of Commissioners is looking at establishing a similar center in downtown High Point.
A rough draft of the agenda for the commissioners’ annual retreat includes a discussion of expanding the county’s Family Justice Center to High Point and several county commissioners said this week that High Point needs its own branch of the service. Advocates of the move say that the center works closely with law enforcement and court services – and High Point has its own police department and courthouse, which makes it difficult for the Greensboro-based Justice Center to perform its services for that city.
Gibsonville also has a police department but those cases end up in either the Greensboro or High Point courthouse.
The mission statement of the county’s Family Justice Center calls for the center, “To empower family violence victims to live free from violence and abuse and hold offenders accountable by providing easily accessible, coordinated, and comprehensive services in a single location.”
The Justice Center was a joint project of Guilford County and the City of Greensboro meant to establish a “one-stop shop” of care for victims of domestic violence, a place where victims and their families could get help from law enforcement, court services, medical professionals and community groups. The Justice Center offers legal advice and help acquiring restraining orders, as well as counseling and medical care. The center also addresses issues involving abuse of the elderly and other family related concerns.
There are about 100 such justice centers across the country and, if some Guilford County officials get their way, this would add another to that list. The discussion is scheduled for the first day of the Board of Commissioners 2017 two-day retreat that will be held on Thursday, Feb. 9 and Friday, Feb. 10.
Commissioner Carlvena Foster, who represents much of High Point, said talks have already been going on for a while between county officials, the High Point Police Department, High Point city councilmembers and city staff. She said they have started to discuss plans and assess potential locations should the Board of Commissioners decide to move ahead with the project.
“All of the partners are excited and really want to move forward with this,” Foster said.
The Family Justice Center in Greensboro has proven popular, and there’s certainly a feeling on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners that the current center is a success. When commissioners ran for reelection in 2016, they pointed to the establishment of the clinic as one of the board’s successes in their four-year terms. The Justice Center has also gained some national attention from other communities looking to establish similar services.
Foster said it was her understanding that, even before the downtown Greensboro Justice Center was built, it was always the county’s intention to put another center in High Point once the Greensboro center was up and running.
She added that it’s still not known what the cost would be to build and run the clinic. She said that will depend on the scope of those operations as well as the needs that must be met. The county is looking into those questions.
“We haven’t talked dollars,” Foster said, but she added that there appears to be a great deal of interest from the High Point partners and that the city may be willing to help pay the cost if the county puts a new justice center in High Point. The Greensboro City Council contributed $250,000 to the effort and Guilford County paid a lot on top of that. It currently cost Guilford County about $277,000 a year to operate the Justice Center in Greensboro.
Foster said the services are very valuable to the community and added that there should be one in the county’s second largest city.
“High Point has the same needs as Greensboro,” Foster said.
She also said Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece had been looking at county-owned locations with available space to house the project. According to Foster, due to the nature of the work, a Justice Center in High Point needs to be somewhere near the High Point courthouse, if not inside of it.
“We don’t think there’s room in that courthouse,” Foster said, though another source familiar with the effort said one possibility was to put the center in the courthouse by moving out some existing courthouse services now located there. The county may be able to find some space in other buildings on the same High Point governmental plaza where the courthouse sits.
Foster also said that a management structure for a new center would need to be determined. In 2015, Guilford County formed a new department to oversee the Justice Center. It would seem natural for Family Justice Center Director Catherine Johnson to head it, but Foster it’s not clear if that would be the case if the county follows through on the project.
Johnson said this week that’s she’s been involved in the discussions about the High Point center and she said she’s doing what she can to answer questions from county and city officials. Johnson said she would be attending the Board of Commissioners retreat when the matter is discussed.
She said the High Point Police Department has done some “exploratory work” for the project along with county officials.
Johnson said she did feel the Family Justice Center in Greensboro had helped a lot of people who needed it. She said it been open for 19 months and had seen 8,300 clients.
“There has been some real demonstrable success for coordinating resources,” Johnson said.
She added that, overwhelmingly, those clients were from zip codes outside of High Point. Of the first 2,500 people who came in, only 86 people provided a High Point zip code– though she added that some of the 2,500 didn’t give any zip code.
“We didn’t see a lot of people from High Point,” Johnson said. “The majority of those people are coming from Greensboro.”
The Justice Center attempts to help those from High Point, she said. However, since those are cases in the High Point court system, it presents more logistical challenges for the center.
According to Johnson, there are some resources in High Point, such as Family Services of the Piedmont, that provide some services for victims of abuse.
While some county commissioners are gung-ho on a second Justice Center for Guilford County, other commissioners want to hear some hard numbers before they expand Family Justice Center services to High Point.
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson said he needs a higher confidence level for the project but he wants to hear the debate at the retreat.
“I’d prefer to have one running at 100 percent than two running at 50 percent,” Branson said of family justice centers.
Guilford County is rare among the state’s counties in that it contains two major cities, two register of deeds offices, two tax offices, two social services offices – and two offices for several other county services as well.