CHARLOTTE — Audra Toussaint knows the Mecklenburg County Courthouse so well she could give tours. But she didn’t come to know the courthouse as a lawyer or a judge or even as a bailiff.
She came to know the courthouse as a survivor of domestic abuse.
In the past seven years, 52-year-old Toussaint has taught herself to navigate the ins and outs of the legal system to keep herself and her daughter safe from her abuser. She’s renewed a restraining order against her abuser multiple times, filed motions on her own and appeared before a magistrate at least 10 times. She’s even picked up on the temperament of some of the judges.
But that process of gaining protection from her abuser, child support and custody of her daughter didn’t come easily, and Toussaint said she didn’t get everything right. Looking back, Toussaint said her path could have been less stressful and exhausting if there had been an all-in-one center for people like her.
Recently, two Charlotte nonprofits — Safe Alliance and Pat’s Place Child Advocacy Center — took steps toward securing the funding for a family justice center that would centralize resources for domestic abuse survivors so they don’t have to become experts and make mistakes the way Toussaint did.
‘I just never felt like there was a choice’
First, Toussaint learned she could have saved money by filing a claim for child support through the state — not the county. Second, when she sought an emergency protective order the first time, Toussaint dialed back her request to a no-contact order — something a domestic violence lawyer would not have advised, she said.
There were also resources she didn’t know about or use to her advantage.
For example, Toussaint didn’t know about the county’s supervised visitation and exchange center, a space that allows victims to safely hand over their children when they have an active no-contact or restraining order. Toussaint had just been meeting her abuser in a Harris Teeter parking lot. One encounter ended with her in a headlock, she said.
Toussaint also represented herself in court until 2018, when a Safe Alliance attorney joined her. The restraining order was up for renewal, and Toussaint wasn’t sure how the judge would rule.
“The game shifted for me … Going with (a Safe Alliance) attorney, they speak the language. They know the players,” she said.
Toussaint’s ordeal had exhausted her. When she first broke up with her partner in 2014, he responded by bugging her home and relentlessly stalking and harassing her, she said. When she did eventually get a restraining order, she said he responded by calling her employer 11 times in an attempt to get her fired.
During that time, Toussaint remembers going to the wrong floors for hearings and running between the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Matthews and Stallings police departments to make sure warrants for a domestic violence charge were served. She doesn’t want to think about all the money she’s spent at the courthouse parking garage.
“If there was an obstacle, I had to find a way around it, under it or over it,” she said. “I just never felt like there was a choice.”
What’s not working now
The Charlotte area has several organizations that seek to help victims of child, elder or intimate partner abuse. But those organizations are spread out across Mecklenburg County and do not always work together to decrease redundancy, Andrew Oliver, CEO of Pat’s Place, told Charlotte City Council in a presentation last month asking for support for a family justice center.
Currently, a survivor could be asked to travel to several different locations, fill out dozens of forms and referrals and share their experience up to 27 times, Oliver said. Navigating all those processes puts a large time and logistical barrier between victims and safety, he said.
What the county needs is an all-in-one “family justice center” where victims can walk in and get access to legal and law enforcement resources, medical attention and counseling without having to worry about child care, security and parking, Safe Alliance CEO Karen Parker said in an interview with The Charlotte Observer.
Parker, Toussaint and others who work in helping domestic abuse survivors in Charlotte have been researching family justice centers since 2017.
In Mecklenburg County, the center would also include police detectives and victim support specialists, Davidson and Matthews law enforcement officials, magistrates and representatives from the Department of Social Services, Toussaint said.
Evidence shows that family justice centers can improve results and experiences for survivors.
A 2013 study of four centers in California examined 120 cases that involved criminal justice filings and found that benchmarks such as conviction rates or felony filing status were met and sometimes exceeded. Another report by The Blue Shield of California that evaluated seven family justice centers in the state found that patients who took advantage of the resources reported a statistically significant higher increase in hope and satisfaction.
Greensboro has seen a 75% decrease in domestic violence homicides since a center opened there in 2015, according to the presentation to Charlotte City Council.
As for Charlotte, such a center couldn’t come quick enough, Parker said. While domestic violence incidents have increased as the city has grown, the pandemic and stay-at-home orders have especially stressed relationships. At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, calls to Mecklenburg’s domestic violence and sexual assault hot-line increased by 45% and were up by 20% overall last year, Parker said.
According to police, domestic violence 911 calls and reports also budged slightly upward last year. In 2020 there were:
8,722 domestic violence reports, a 4% increase from the year before.
38,600 domestic violence 911 calls, about a 6% increase. According to Oliver, those calls make up around 10% of all of the police department’s 911 calls.
15 domestic violence homicides, which makes up around 12% of all homicides. In the past 10 years, there have been 132 domestic violence homicides in Charlotte, most of which are from intimate partner violence, Oliver said.
Oliver and Parker are aiming to have a 100,000-square-foot family justice center ready in fall 2023. In the meantime, a survivor resource center recently opened in uptown to address cases most likely to escalate into deadly violence. Those cases usually involve drugs, guns or strangulation, Parker told the Observer.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Johnny Jennings and Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather have both expressed support for such a center and said they would commit to moving some of their staff to the new office space. Last year, Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio also voiced her support.
With Charlotte in budget season, Parker said the family justice center’s steering committee is hoping to receive a $10 million commitment from both the county and city — possibly in the form of land or a building — and raise an additional $15 million from local nonprofits.
Toussaint said she knew early last year that she wanted to help other victims of domestic abuse. She was honored when Parker asked if she would consider leading the fundraising effort for a family justice center.
Although Toussaint still walks to the mailbox armed with pepper spray, the only way she can describe her life now — everything from her daughter and friends to her job running a tech support team — is “wonderful.” She wants more survivors to feel as triumphant as she does now.
“I was in that darkness and there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.