The last hope for help
The Family Safety Center offers comprehensive services for victims of violence.
Executive Director Suzann Stewart at the Family Safety Center's new facility inside the Tulsa Police Department
When clients come to the Family Safety Center for the first time, they may be in terrible shape, with missing teeth, bite marks, bruises, swollen faces — even a missing ear.
Pennie Tabor, a client services representative who works at the front desk, is the first person they see and the first person who gives them a smile and some reassurance that they will find help with medical, psychological and legal needs.
“For a lot of people, we’re their last hope for help,” Tabor says.
The Family Safety Center opened in 2006 when Tulsa was selected as one of 15 awardees of the President’s Family Justice Center Initiative. The center was funded through the Department of Justice until 2011, when the center began doing its own fundraising.
The model was developed to help victims of intimate partner violence find comprehensive services at one location, rather than face a fragmented system of separate agencies offering uncoordinated services.
Professionals from Domestic Violence Intervention Services, Tulsa Metropolitan Ministries, the Tulsa Police Department, the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office staff the Family Safety Center so victims can take care of several issues in one day.
While most Family Safety Center clients are female, victims are not just women and not just wives. Other examples of intimate partner violence could be an elderly parent abused by an adult child, a teenager abused by a boyfriend, or even an apartment roommate victimized by another roommate, says Executive Director Suzann Stewart.
All those people can come to the Family Safety Center and meet with a range of professionals, including an advocate, attorney, police officer or chaplain.
Every weekday, there is an emergency protective order hearing conducted by video camera so a judge can issue a protective order before the victim leaves the Family Safety Center. A teacher is on staff to take care of children while their parents handle legal issues.
“We’ve got to get to the kids,” Stewart says. “We have to identify people with children where they’re experiencing abuse or are witnessing it. We hope we’re helping break that cycle.”
Stewart admits she came to her job unaware of the realities of domestic violence: in 2012, there were more than 21,000 domestic violence calls in Tulsa County to 911. In the past 10 years, 21 percent of the fatalities from domestic violence have occurred in Tulsa County, compared to an average 18 percent statewide. During her first three weeks on the job, there were two domestic violence homicides.
Stewart admits she used to be someone who thought, “If someone hit me, I would leave.’’ Since working at the Family Safety Center, she has realized women can leave only if they have the resources to do so.
Many women say their husband or boyfriend checks their messages or forces them to call in every 15 minutes. They may have taken away the woman’s credit cards and may even have installed a tracking device in her car to track her whereabouts. Many arrive at the Family Safety Center without even a driver’s license or identification, Stewart says.
For so many reasons, leaving an abusive relationship is difficult, says Det. Sarah Vas of the Tulsa Police Department. Vas is one of five detectives and two supervisors who work full time at the Family Safety Center. Together, the unit handles about 700 domestic violence cases each month.
“Normally, when (a person is) a victim of a crime, it’s not hard to come forward as a victim,” Vas says. “But with domestic violence, it’s such a personal crime. (Victims) are ashamed and embarrassed and afraid.”
Sadly, their visit to the Family Safety Center may not be their last, Stewart says. Nationally, victims leave an abusive relationship an average of eight times before they stay away permanently.
But for many, one day at the Family Safety Center is enough to help them form a plan, stay safe, find housing and build new lives.
“When people come in, they’re down, they’re hurt and they’re dragging their kids with them,” Stewart says. “Maybe a husband put a gun to their head. That can be very scary. But when they hear someone say, ‘You’ve done nothing to deserve this life. We can help you,’ people leave with their heads up. They have an idea that there is a different kind of future and that there are people who care.
“It’s the same door they came in, but it’s a door to a new world.”
The Family Safety Center recently moved to a renovated space on the first floor of the Tulsa Police Department, which is located between the Cox Business Center and Tulsa County Courthouse in downtown Tulsa. It is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday, and victims can walk in without an appointment to receive a variety of services. For after-hours help, call 918-7-HELP-ME.