High Point doesn’t get everything it wants from Guilford County but the Guilford County commissioners have decided, after more than two years of debate, to give that city its own Family Justice Center.
The new center – meant to be a “one-stop” service for domestic violence victims and provide a wide range of other family services – will be built in the county’s High Point courthouse and is expected to open in September 2018.
Guilford County, with the help of $250,000 from the City of Greensboro, opened a Family Justice Center at 201 S. Greene St. in downtown Greensboro in May 2015 that has been considered a major success. The center has been honored statewide and nationally – and it has even been praised by some county commissioners who initially were skeptical about starting it.
The Family Justice Center in Greensboro gets much of its manpower from the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department, the Greensboro Police Department, Guilford County’s Department of Social Services and area nonprofit agencies dedicated to curbing domestic violence. The new justice center in High Point will, to a large extent, follow that same model.
Guilford County Commissioner Kay Cashion, who helped lead the effort to open the Family Justice Center in Greensboro, has also been a guiding force for getting the new center in High Point. Cashion said she’s very excited about Guilford County establishing a center in the county’s second largest city. She said Guilford County Family Services Director Catherine Johnson has done an excellent job in Greensboro.
“We have been hearing about the great need in High Point,” Cashion said. “And we’ve said from day one that, once we got the Greensboro facility up and running – and got a couple of years of experience under the belt and felt we were in a position to expand to High Point using the same model – then that would be what we would point toward. So here we are. We have better than two-and-a-half years under the belt, and this model now is becoming a national model. Catherine is getting kudos from everywhere and this operation is really making Guilford County shine.”
On Thursday morning, Nov. 9, the Guilford County Family Justice Center Committee put the finishing touches on plans for the new center in High Point, which was then formally approved by the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Nov. 14.
High Point Mayor Bill Bencini said the High Point City Council is also solidly behind the project, and he added that he was pleased to learn of the county’s decision to help fund a justice center in his city.
“We are in support of it and appreciative of the county recognizing its importance,” Bencini said.
The City of High Point put $500,000 in the current 2017-2018 budget to renovate the space for the new center and to get it up and running.
Bencini said the county commissioners funded the project in Greensboro several years ago and they now seemed to recognize the need to help fund a similar facility in High Point where those services are also needed.
Cashion chaired the Nov. 9 committee meeting. Three other committee members – Commissioners Alan Perdue, Hank Henning and Carlvena Foster – participated in the 9 a.m. meeting, though Henning and Foster did so by phone.
Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing, County Attorney Mark Payne, Johnson and other county staff were at the meeting held in the manager’s second-floor conference room in the Old Guilford County Court House.
Cashion said the courthouse in High Point was the right place for the new justice center.
“We have seen the space and have concluded that is the best,” Cashion said at the meeting.
Lawing told the committee that establishing the center should require less than the $500,000 that’s been set aside for that purpose. One challenge, he said, will be cutting a new entrance in the side of the courthouse in High Point. Currently, most people who enter that courthouse come in through the large entrance that faces the huge parking deck on the governmental plaza in High Point; however, the new justice center will have its own entrance on the other side of the building, along with its own dedicated parking.
“Our goal is to get all of that done within that amount,” Lawing said of the half-million dollars the new center is expected to cost the county.
Cashion said that, in her discussions with Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece, he sounded comfortable with that estimate.
Johnson said at the committee meeting that the projected cost of operating the center is $188,000 a year.
“That’s three staff positions as well as some minimal official supplies and funding for training,” Johnson said.
The Family Justice Center in Greensboro costs about $277,000 a year to operate, so, with the added cost for High Point, the county will be spending about $465,000 annually for these services. Before the Greensboro justice center opened, some of those costs were in other departments such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department.
Guilford County will need to find the money for the High Point justice center and put it into the 2018-2019 budget that’s expected to be adopted in June.
The timeline for the project calls for Guilford County to begin advertising right away for a High Point services coordinator for the new justice center, as well as for an administrative assistant, with a goal of hiring the supervisor in January and the assistant in May. The two will help oversee the project and create community engagement in the effort.
Guilford County will also start the search this month for a design and engineering firm to handle the courthouse renovation, which will include creating the new entrance and upfitting the space in the courthouse, which is currently unused office space.
Next month, Guilford County is expected to reach a final agreement on the details of the funding of the project with High Point. Hopefully, those funding discussions will go better than the discussions over joint funding for a proposed downtown baseball stadium in High Point.
In February of next year, the Board of Commissioners is expected to approve the final design contract for the justice center space, and Guilford County will also seek permits from High Point at that time. In March, the county plans to hold community focus groups and collect citizen feedback regarding the services and operations needed at the new Family Justice Center in High Point.
The construction project, including work on the new courthouse entrance, is expected to begin in April. In June of next year, the Family Justice Center in High Point will start recruiting and training volunteers In August, staff plans to move in, with a soft opening and an open house that month as well. The grand opening is set for September.
According to Johnson, some of the cost of the project will be absorbed by community grants. Some other expenses are already covered, she said.
“Everyone moving into the space already has a computer and a desk,” Johnson said. “A majority of partners who provide services here in Greensboro provide services in High Point. The biggest transition will be law enforcement. Obviously, it will be High Point police instead of Greensboro police, but there are a lot of parallels.”
Cashion said she’s very excited about High Point’s coming justice center and she added that there may be partnerships with High Point University. She said the center may hire interns from that university the same way the justice center in Greensboro does from UNC-Greensboro and NC A&T State University.
“It will open up a lot of opportunities for a lot of community participation.” Cashion said of the project,
There are about 100 justice centers across the country with somewhat similar services. In Greensboro, victims and their families consult with advocates and nonprofits and get assistance for things like restraining orders against abusive spouses or get medical examinations for sexual and other crimes from medical staff who come over from Cone Health. The justice center also addresses issues involving abuse of the elderly and provides clients with information on where they can get help from community support groups.
The center in Greensboro is becoming something of a model for other cities and counties. In fact, Guilford County has been selected as the site of the first statewide justice center conference, which will be held on Wednesday, Dec. 6 and Thursday, Dec. 7. A state government crime commission is fully funding the event.
“We’ve got counties and cities from across the state that will be here to learn about how to start, sustain and work within a family justice center,” Johnson said, “and our center was chosen as the host site due to our successful collaboration.”
Johnson added that this is the first statewide conference on the East Coast and that North Carolina senators and others officials from state government will attend the opening. On Wednesday, Dec. 6, conference attendees will tour the Family Justice Center in Greensboro.
According to Johnson, Mecklenburg and Forsyth counties are “very close to realigning their resources” into a justice center. Other cities and counties in the state are planning on doing the same.
“It’s wonderful that we get to highlight what we’ve done here and also help other communities across our state position themselves better to service victims of crime,” Johnson said.
She said there’s room at the conference for 180 participants and enrollment now stands at 150.
“We feel certain it will sell out,” she said at the committee meeting.
Cashion said it’s a real honor to be chosen as the site for the conference and Lawing said the county will provide enough refreshments to impress the visitors.
“We won’t embarrass you,” Lawing said.
Currently, in Greensboro, some taxpayers don’t appreciate the fact that, though the Family Justice Center is a county department that serves all of Guilford County, Greensboro has been the only municipality so far helping pay for the center.
For the Greensboro Family Justice Center, High Point, Jamestown, Gibsonville, Oak Ridge, Summerfield, Stokesdale and Whitsett now receive the benefits of the services but don’t pay a dime of the cost. It now looks like High Point will pony up some cash for the new center in that city; however, the small cities and towns that will also benefit from the services at both locations still won’t be paying anything.