Since 2008, the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation has been supporting Amani Family Service’s programming to help immigrants and refugees navigate the United States’ criminal justice system after experiencing a crime such as domestic violence or sexual assault. Over the years, Amani case managers advocated for their clients and provided much-needed interpretation and translation services, but they found the process to be unnecessarily stressful for the victims of crime.
“They have to go to the police to file a report, then another agency and another agency and they have to tell their story over and over again, essentially re-traumatizing them,” says Jessica Ortiz, Family Justice Center director for Amani Family Services.
While the process creates a great deal of distress, it can also be inefficient. Separate appointments require taking more time off from work, arranging for transportation and childcare, and paying for interpreters for each meeting. It can all take weeks or even months.
That’s why Amani staff began searching for ways to lessen the burden on clients, and they discovered the Family Justice Center model. The model is being implemented nationwide and streamlines the criminal justice process for victims of crime. It calls for public safety, legal, case management, mental health and other services to be available all at the same time and in the same location so a client can take care of multiple appointments at once and with one interpreter.
“We’re learning that our client can know that there is a 911 number to call but they may not have trust in the process,” says Ewelina Connolly, CEO of Amani Family Services. “Amani helps bring comfort and security to our clients as they’re navigating the systems. At the same time, we are helping the community deliver the services through the police department, prosecuting attorney’s office, and in the courts because they have expressed to us that they would like to improve their ability to assist our clients. We are playing an important role in pairing up with other service providers and bridging the gaps.”
In the spring of 2021, the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation Board and staff met with the Amani Board and staff to discuss launching a local Family Justice Center model. The Board then approved a new $50,000 grant to help Amani launch the model. Since then, Amani professionals have been working to implement the new model and began by partnering with the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, which schedules appointments at Amani’s office two times a month. They’re also working with the Fort Wayne Police Department and the Prosecutor’s Office to find the best ways to collaborate and serve immigrants and refugees who are victims of crime in the Fort Wayne area.
According to Meg Distler, Executive Director of the
St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, “We see Amani Family Services and Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic as truly “communities in communion” ministering to assure no immigrant is a stranger, and everyone is treated with dignity. In 2008, we were among the first donors to both organizations. Since then, we have worked together on numerous community projects, like the Family Justice Center and Diversity Awards, and provided 24 different grants. Like a mustard seed planted, St. Joe’s initial grant investments have yielded great results for many immigrant families. It is such a privilege to see the ripples spread outward.”
Amani is working to go beyond the criminal justice services, however, and will soon have a health coach that will be available to meet with clients, who can also access mental health services through the agency.
“We can help navigate the whole criminal justice piece and the legal case may progress as they want, but that doesn’t mean they will have the healing and hope they need, so we’re working to address all of that with this model,” says Melissa Singh, associate director of the Family Justice Center.
In the end, the Family Justice Center model is about more than just helping non-English speaking residents navigate the criminal justice system, it’s about supporting the local immigrant and refugee community.
“This sends a simple but powerful message that ‘we get you, we see you, and you matter,’ says Ortiz. “The message for our clients is that we will continue to find ways to work with them in a way that says ‘you belong here, we embrace you with open arms.’”