Center Opens For Victims Of Violent Crimes

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First there is the crime and then there are the hours of repeating what happened to authorities.

Knowing how difficult it can be to report a crime such as domestic violence, sexual, child or elder abuse, a group of Gila County residents have created a safe environment where victims will only have to tell their story once.

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April is Child Abuse Prevention month and Gila County has done more than commemorate the month on the calendar. The Gila Family Advocacy Center, a facility where victims are interviewed after a crime and matched with resources, is now open in Payson.

"Ideally, we want people to feel safe when they are here," said forensic interviewer/victim's advocate Christy Walton.

Walton's job is to make the crime victim(s) feel at ease in a private room with a comfortable chair where she interviews them about what happened.

The whole facility was decorated in warm tones, in stark contrast to the cold walls of a police station.

Toys for children are nestled next to the comfortable couch and chair.

The new center is called the Gila Family Advocacy Center. It is one of 16 such facilities in Arizona and 600 nationwide that aim to minimize further trauma to victims.

A monitoring room is at the heart of GFAC. Here, police officers and prosecutors can watch the interview. Then, when Walton and the victim take a break from the interview, they can tell Walton what information they need clarified.

"The legal system is daunting to go through," said Jean Oliver, education coordinator for the Time Out Shelter and program coordinator for the Gila Family Advocacy Center. "Our mission is to improve outcomes for abuse victims."

Gov. Janet Napolitano's Children Youth and Families program initially funded a task force of local representatives from the county probation department, Payson Police Department, Child Protective Services and other agencies to brainstorm and visit other advocacy centers in Arizona.

The task force wanted not just to improve on what was available to victims, but think outside the box, Oliver said.

Two years later, under the umbrella of Time Out, the advocacy center is a reality.

Victims are referred to the center by law enforcement. They cannot just walk in off the street.

GFAC does not provide counseling, but they will refer victims to counselors, the food bank or the domestic violence shelter, as necessary.

They will also assist with questions about court procedures and the process of victim restitution.

"From our perspective, (GFAC) is going to be the best opportunity to offer immediate services, and help crime victims understand the legal system," said county attorney Daisy Flores.

GFAC is a great resource for law enforcement because the immediacy of the interview generally means it will be a "fuller interview," Flores said.

Hiring a forensic nurse, then remodeling the facility's kitchen into a medical examination room, are two of the next steps for GFAC's growth.

GFAC plans to review all child fatalities in Gila County to help determine how many fatalities involve abuse, Oliver said.

There were 795 cases of felony child abuse from July 1, 2004 to June 30, 2005. There were 670 cases the following year.

GFAC directors are members of the Arizona Child and Family Advocacy Network.

GFAC has an associate membership with The National Children's Alliance. GFAC will seek full accreditation when it is completely functioning and that status means the center will be able to access other sources of revenue.

"This was a community project and I am really proud of how many people and organizations came together to make this happen," Flores said.

The expedition ministry of Mountain Bible Church decided GFAC was "the perfect project for us" as an "active expression of our faith," said Mark Sopeland.

The ministry had men in construction and women with a talent for interior design. They went to work on GFAC's space.

"They really made it comfortable and gave it a homey feeling," Walton said.

Time Out, with its 30 paid staff and more than 45 volunteers, supports two emergency shelters, four transitional housing units, the Time Out Thrift Shop and now the advocacy center.

Other victim advocacy centers in Arizona are run by police departments or county attorney's offices. GFAC is the first facility to be run by a nonprofit domestic violence shelter. Tax-deductible donations may be made to Time Out for distribution to its programs, as needed.

"We are so pleased to be able to provide these services to the community," Oliver said.

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