After more than a decade in the making, West Contra Costa County’s first permanent one-stop center to assist victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and other abuse held its grand opening Thursday.
The West Contra Costa Family Justice Center at 256 24th St. is an all-inclusive resource for victims and their families, providing access to an array of social services and law enforcement assistance. Its newly renovated 7,200-square-foot facility replaces the temporary site at the Richmond Police Department substation at Hilltop Mall, which opened in 2011.
While in the past victims would have to travel to various locations around the county to tap various resources, the West County center includes those services in one spot and within walking distance of BART. The police department is staffing a half dozen detectives from its Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault unit in a room in the facility named after Kaliah Harper, an RPD officer whose life was taken by domestic violence. Down the hall, victims can access emergency shelter assistance along with legal, mental health and counseling services and even job training resources.
Having all support services streamlined at one location helps victims “get to safety faster because they don’t have to figure out 20 systems,” said Susan Kim, executive director for the Contra Costa Family Justice Alliance.
The idea for a one-stop family justice center in the county was initially championed by Supervisor John Gioia, who was instrumental in the Board of Supervisors’ adoption in 2000 of Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence. The initiative set forth plans to combine multiple jurisdictions and community partners, including private and corporate entities, on a shared mission. The county was one of the first to use fees on vital records such as marriage licenses and birth certificates to fund planning of the initiative.
The term “instrumental” was also used to describe Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus and Capt. Bisa French for bringing all parties together to find ways to open a center in their city.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Identifying funds for a permanent space was uncertain, Magnus said. While the county sold the space on 24th Street, a former mental health intake facility, for just $1, the building was a “hot mess” and a blight on the community, Magnus said.
To raise funds for the significant renovation, the City of Richmond, led by City Manager Bill Lindsay, pushed for — and its council approved of — a $2 million bond. For that effort, Lindsay has a community room at the center named after him. Kaiser Permanente also chipped in $500,000 toward the project.
The facility received an additional boost Thursday after Menbere Aklilu, owner of Marina Bay restaurant Salute E Vita Ristorante in Marina Bay and a domestic violence survivor, presented a check for $15,000 to the center. Moments later, Andrea Bailey, community engagement manager with Chevron Richmond, presented an $80,000 check on behalf of the company.
The new center is airy, filled with natural light and includes a children’s play room (see photo below) and comfortable counseling rooms. One speaker at Thursday’s grand opening remarked that it feels safe and filled with compassion.
While the grand opening included a number of politicians and community leaders, the passionate Aklilu may have seized the most hearts. The Salute’s owner, who was raised in Ethiopia, told of her horrific past as a victim of abuse, including witnessing her mother’s murder and later becoming a homeless mom in order to escape an abusive relationship. While the memories pain her to this day, she said she felt happy and relieved that others now have a place to seek help and break the cycle of violence that gets passed down from generation to generation.
“I have a scar on my face, a scar on my back and a scar on my heart,” Aklilu said, but added, “Today, I fell more in love with Richmond.”
Sukari Wright, a 14-year-old spoken word artist from the RYSE Center, also delivered a powerful reading during the opening ceremony. She read her piece on exploitation, “Bay Area Whispers.”
A portion of the $2 million bond money was set aside for art for the center. That art, which hangs in the hallways like a gallery, was provided by Richmond-based NIAD Art Center, the program supporting artists with disabilities.