By Traci Chapman
Calvin was 11 years old when he decided he wanted to change his identity, becoming Alex so he could escape from the abuse and neglect that was his life. Calvin lost hope, he lost himself and in becoming Alex he started a journey that could have ended with him as the abuser, in drug addiction, in loss, even death.
But an intervention changed Alex’s path, restoring that hope and allowing Calvin to not only survive but to thrive – and, today, Calvin helps other children and youth who face what he did.
That is the power of a family justice center, Casey Gwinn says, and Canadian County is a place where stories like Calvin’s are already happening.
“You’ve got one of the best juvenile justice models in the country, not just in Oklahoma, with your (Gary E Miller Canadian County) children’s justice center,” said Gwinn, president of Alliance for Hope International. “That’s an incredible resource and a huge start a lot of communities just don’t have.”
That advantage was just one reason Gwinn and his team were interested in traveling from their San Diego headquarters to Oklahoma, to determine of starting a family justice center in Canadian County.
“We didn’t know anything about El Reno, Oklahoma, before we got here, but I look out at the engagement just in this room and I have to say I’m impressed,” Gwinn said. “This is a group of people who are working together to make the community better.”
That group included individuals and organizations working to help families in crisis, law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, municipal and county leaders and the community as a whole.
They came together to take part in the kickoff for the first step in an effort to put in place a family justice center in Canadian County. Sponsored by District Attorney Mike Fields’ office, county commissioners, the children’s justice center and others, Gwinn first met with people interested in learning about what Alliance for Hope does – and how a family justice center could make a difference for area residents.
It’s an idea that interweaves with many spectrums – from law enforcement and the judicial system to advocacy and beyond, Gwinn said. It starts with family trauma that goes beyond the home, sometimes exponentially, he said.
“In America we create our criminals at home,” Gwinn said. “But, not only do we raise criminals in America, a lot of victims get raised at home too.”
Children are the key, Gwinn said – and that’s why facilities like the children’s justice center are so important. It’s only one facet, however, and while there are scores of efforts going on throughout Canadian County to benefit families – particularly those dealing with abuse, neglect, addiction and other traumatic challenges – they are not available in one place.
“That means people might not know about all the resources out there for them – and we aren’t completely coordinating our efforts to help those who need it most,” Gwinn said. “We’ve all got common ground, but the goal is to create a place where it all comes together.”
That’s where Alliance’s study tour comes in, not only in providing information about what it’s done elsewhere and how the general family justice center process works, but in listening to those here who would both help those efforts and benefit from it. The tour gives Gwinn and his team the opportunity to listen to those who could make a Canadian County FJC not only a reality but a success.
That comes about through individual meetings, set over the next few days. Alliance representatives are set to meet with members of the district attorney’s office and legal aid, adult victim service providers, elected and school officials, various nonprofit board members, local judges, Department of Human Services and child victim service providers and more. A second large meeting for faith leaders, civic groups and the community in general is set for Wednesday morning, while a survivor’s focus group looks at the other side of the equation, officials said.
It all leads to what officials hope becomes a reality – and soon – a local family justice center. It’s something vital to the county and its residents, Fields said.
“The goal is to help survivors of family violence and their families – no matter their age or circumstances – get the resources they need, all in one place and all at one time,” he said.
Family justice centers pull together multiple agencies and organizations under one roof, working together to help victims and their families. Teammates in that effort can come from a wide variety of disciplines – not just district attorneys and staff from a facility like Canadian County’s children’s justice center, but also law enforcement and medical personnel, domestic violence and victim advocates, social service staff, county health department representatives, mental health professionals and much more, according to Alliance for HOPE International documentation.
Oklahoma is one of three states – along with California and Louisiana – to pass legislation defining family justice centers. Oklahoma City is home to Palomar, while Shawnee in 2015 started its journey toward its own family justice center, One Safe Place.
It was in California the first family justice center was founded, officials said. A collaboration between the San Diego Police Department and that municipality’s city attorney, the program grew to become a model for other communities to follow when Alliance for HOPE International launched it in 2002, president Casey Gwinn said. Since that time, the organization has seen the movement grow exponentially, he said, with more than 100 centers open across the United States and another hundred-plus facilities in place or in development in 20 countries internationally.
“We can all lose hope and that’s the key to the family justice center model,” Gwinn said. “We give hope back, we make sure hope thrives and we change lives – and it’s obvious that’s something already important here in Canadian County.
“That’s an amazing first step but it’s only the first one and we can move forward – together,” he said.