MARCH 2, 2017
Armed with new funds to help assault victims obtain protective court orders and to investigate and prosecute abusers, Lynchburg authorities are ramping up their efforts to fight domestic violence.
A federal grant of nearly half a million dollars, secured by the Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, will help pay for initiatives to combat abuse and assaults by spouses, partners and relatives. The grant adds to existing money already used to help launch the program.
Chiefly the grant will be spent on several new positions that deal directly with domestic violence — experts to guide alleged assault victims through the maze of the protective order process, a part-time prosecutor dedicated just to domestic violence cases and an investigator to collect evidence.
The prosecutor’s office, along with other local agencies, also plans to launch a coordinated community response team to help victims of alleged abuse.
“I think essentially, what we are trying to do here is reduce the barriers that are faced by victims going through this process of obtaining protective orders and also needed services,” said Donna Nash, grants administrator for the Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.
“Sometimes they don’t know where to go or what steps to take,” she said.
Crucial to the new effort, which is a partnership of several local agencies: creating two “community advocate” positions. The advocates have longtime experience in social services.
These experts, who kicked off the program in recent weeks using donated office space from the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, help victims navigate the tricky waters of the protective order system.
“This is an advocate who works specifically through the protective order process,” Nash said. No one else in the city’s law enforcement apparatus works solely on helping people who may need to obtain a domestic court order, she said.
An intense focus on protective orders makes sense in the broader picture of heading off violence because the informed use of such orders reduces the likelihood of risky confrontations, Nash and the community advocates said.
“Our immediate plan is to see that each victim of violence is aware there is a civil process that they can follow through with, and it’s protective orders,” said Pam Cooke, one of the new advocates.
Cooke said drafting a safety plan for alleged victims is another key element of what the advocates do, so “regardless of whether or not there’s a criminal charge or they decide to go forward with a protective order … there’s a plan in place for their safety and the safety of their children.”
The advocates explain the process, help with paperwork and are available for follow-up and court appearances with clients as needed.
A former director for the Campbell County Victim Witness Program for 30 years, Cooke started working at the Lynchburg Victim Witness Program in 2015. Her new position is funded through an earlier grant from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.
Soon after Cooke was hired, a need for additional staff for protective order advocacy became apparent. So the commonwealth’s attorney’s office applied for a grant from the U.S. Justice Department, which last year approved more than $448,000 for a three-year period to fund the Lynchburg efforts.
Part of those funds pay for the position of Debra Drake, who was hired as a full-time community advocate early this year by YWCA of Central Virginia. That group coordinates domestic violence prevention efforts locally and also runs a Lynchburg shelter.
Drake, a former family services manager of Bedford County Department of Social Services, has 33 years of experience working with families and children.
“The protective order process can be very difficult to maneuver, and if you already have anxiety, are fearful, you have children, you’re operating under a time constraint, a work constraint, it is very difficult to come in here and attempt to maneuver the system in order to ensure your safety an your family’s safety,” Drake said.
Having an advocate by their side eases a great deal of that anxiety and frustration, she said.
Along with the new positions in the community advocate office, big plans are underway for use of the federal dollars.
Nash said the funds also will help pay for a part-time prosecutor in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office who will work only on domestic violence cases.
The office also has hired a part-time investigator, who started this week, to prepare reports the prosecutor can use in criminal domestic violence cases.
Nash said more details about the increased prosecutorial efforts and community response team will be released this spring. She called the grant funding “an innovative program” and said the city will be able to apply for grants beyond the initial 36-month funding period.
“As long as we are doing everything we said we would do in this grant, and we have good, timely progress reports and financial reports, we stand a good chance of having it extended for another 36 months,” she said. “Lynchburg is very fortunate. These grants are very hard to get.”