Letter from Leadership: Jamie Perez on Why the Safe Families Office Matters

A letter from Safe and Stable Families Director Jamie Perez.

Imagine that you have just been berated, beaten, and bloodied by your partner. Maybe it’s the first time. Maybe it’s the 51st time. It happened in front of your three children. You once conveyed some of what has been happening to friends and family, but they looked at you like you had to be exaggerating. They’ve seen that your partner is very kind to others. He helps take care of your grandmother. He coaches your son’s soccer team. He’s charming. Once or twice you’ve called the police, but you’ve seen the way the police respond to him. They became buddies, while he convinced them of your mental health problems, or that you started it, or that it’s all just a big misunderstanding.

Or, even worse, you’re an undocumented immigrant, but your partner is a U.S. citizen. You are too afraid to call the police when he hits you because of the implications for your immigration status. Maybe you were previously arrested after an incident where your partner had visible wounds, but only because you finally decided to defend yourself. But he knew where to hurt you so that the injuries wouldn’t be seen.

Suppose you decide, on the 1st time or the 51st time, that you want out. As you pack your bags while your partner is at work, you think about your next steps. You can’t turn to your family for help; they can’t imagine why you’d want to leave him. You have no money. You lost your job because you missed too many days of work – you had to call off when you had a black eye, or when he held you captive in your own house. He gives you an allowance, and you’re down to your last $5. He doesn’t allow you to have your own car.

If you do leave, what will you do with the children? All three are in school. If they miss too many days, the school will call DFCS. Even if you could stay with friends or family, who has room for four additional people? Who will feed all of you? Who will help you get the kids to school?

And even if you DO make it out, who is going to believe you? The police certainly didn’t. It doesn’t help that you have no idea what it takes to prove that you’ve been abused. If he finds you, he’s going to be even angrier. Your mind flashes to that gun he keeps in his nightstand…. Really, he’s not THAT bad, you reason. He’s the father of your children. You love him, and maybe if you can just stop running a few minutes late, make dinner the exact way he wants it, the abuse will stop.

Many survivors of domestic violence who find themselves in this situation decide they have nowhere to turn except back to their abusers. But Fulton County has a unique alternative for survivors of domestic violence, which offers a way out: the Safe Families Office.

The Safe Families Office is Georgia’s only lawyer-staffed, courthouse-based walk-in clinic designed to offer domestic violence survivors in-depth legal assistance when they walk through our doors. In addition to vital legal services, AVLF and Partnership Against Domestic Violence, who staff the Safe Families Office, provide holistic services to assist survivors in permanently breaking free from their abusers, no matter how long that process may take.

The Safe Families Office provides:

  • transportation assistance
  • emergency shelter
  • safety planning
  • in-depth legal advice
  • access to family law legal assistance (both limited and full representation)
  • resume building
  • notification of and transportation to job fairs and interviews
  • a direct connection to a variety of criminal victim assistance, civil legal, and social service programs, including but not limited to:
    • the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network
    • Atlanta Legal Aid Society
    • Georgia Legal Services Program
    • Fulton County Solicitor General’s and District Attorney’s Offices of Victim’s Assistance

Every survivor who walks into the Safe Families Office is greeted with kindness and respect. Beyond the tangible services we provide is something just as important: the Safe Families Office staff listens to survivors. They are not judged for their choices. They are not asked why they stayed, or why they fear for their life if their spouse only called them a few names. Survivors meet with advocates who are trained to understand and empathize with the situations they face. Everyone who works in the office knows how abusers manipulate and make survivors appear to be the unstable party. We know a previous arrest doesn’t mean we should dismiss a survivor’s claims.

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For the first time in as long as many survivors can remember, their actions are not questioned. They are treated with dignity. They are treated like people who can make their own decisions. Survivors are in control of the process, and the Safe Families Office staff is there to guide and assist them. They are not alone. They begin to have peace of mind. They start to feel empowered. They leave with a spark of confidence.

Our services extend far outside the doors of the Safe Families Office. After the initial meeting, our social workers and advocates consistently follow-up with survivors. We discuss their upcoming court dates and any barriers to their ability to attend second hearings. These barriers can include several things: lack of transportation, lack of money, fear of facing the abuser, and doubts about whether this is the right choice. We counsel them through each of these concerns.

Ultimately, AVLF pairs survivors with generous attorneys who volunteer their time to represent them in their second hearings so they don’t have to face their abusers alone. The presence of that attorney greatly increases the possibility that the survivors will not have to face their abuser in court. Absent that option, volunteer attorneys both prepare the survivor for the hearing and stand with her in court.

But even after court, our services to don’t stop: we periodically check in with survivors to see if additional assistance is needed to become fully self-sufficient. Frequently, the greatest need is for family law legal assistance – a divorce, custody, or child support. We connect those in need with our in-house family law attorney, who connects survivors with pro bono assistance, and often full representation.  

The barriers survivors of domestic violence face are countless. The Safe Families Office exists to break down those barriers and keep survivors as safe as possible. Without the Safe Families Office, many survivors don’t have the support they need to see their protective orders through. Many feel they have no choice but to turn back to their abusers.

The support provided by the Safe Families Office is vital to survivors of domestic violence ultimately breaking free from abuse for good, and that’s true whether they return to their abusers after seeking assistance or not. The SFO staff understands that leaving an abuser is a process, and that it takes an average of eight times of leaving before a survivor leaves for good.

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The Safe Families Office is a beacon of hope and a safe haven for survivors, no matter where they are in the process of escaping abuse. The quality of services provided are beyond compare and are a great benefit to Fulton County. We ask that you help us protect this work, which now goes far beyond the initial protective order. Your assistance is critical to helping survivors in the process of breaking free from abuse and gaining their independence.