A place for peace: New Sojourner Center will be impactful project

When Sojourner Family Peace Center opens its brand new, 72,000-square-foot facility later this year, it will not only transform Milwaukee’s approach to healing survivors of domestic abuse, but it will also push to halt the cycle of violence that travels between generations.

The Sojourner Family Peace Center, a two-story safe haven located at 619 W. Walnut St. in Milwaukee, will dramatically shift the way victims of violence reach support services as the center aggregates services under one roof.

Those services encompass everything from criminal justice system support to legal care, health care, employability and education – services that historically have operated in silos and created a very fragmented system for abuse victims to navigate.

The new center, a collaborative project of anchor partners Sojourner, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, and the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, follows an internationally recognized model of wrapping services around families in a one-stop shop locale.

“It’s bringing people together – service providers together – to help families that are hurting,” said Carmen Pitre, executive director of Sojourner Family Peace Center, a Milwaukee-based organization that aids families afflicted by domestic violence.

“Sojourner has been a leader, both locally and nationally, by creating innovative programming that impacts the lives of those affected by violence,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “Sojourner and its primary partner, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, are marshaling all available resources in our community into a coordinated, centralized service delivery system with accountability to victims and survivors and their families. The city – through my office, our Commission on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, and our Police Department – is delighted to be partners in this effort and will continue to support Sojourner and all citywide efforts to give hope to families for futures without violence.”

The model Milwaukee is adopting, known as the Family Justice Center model, has inspired centers in more than 80 communities across the globe, as another 100-plus communities are currently developing their own versions of the center’s model.

All are “built around the simple concept that victims should be able to go to one place for everything that they need,” said Casey Gwinn, president of San Diego, Calif.-based Alliance for HOPE International, the umbrella organization for the model.
“When everybody works together, it’s easier for victims to get help,” Gwinn said, since victims can avoid having to retell their story to agency after agency. “When victims have to go from agency to agency, they tend to give up and they tend to go back to their abusive situation in the absence of making it easier for them to get help.”

The new Sojourner Family Peace Center, which will likely be substantially completed in September, will belong to a subset of 10 Family Justice Centers that combine domestic violence services and child advocacy services.

But while most of those centers have three or four agencies co-located together, the new Sojourner Family Peace Center will consist of more than 10 co-located agencies, making it the most comprehensive center of its kind.

The Alliance for HOPE International has referred to the new Sojourner Family Peace Center as “the state-of-the-art” model, Pitre said, as it contains the “most comprehensive continuum” of services of any center and has the most extensive range of partnerships.

Since San Diego began co-locating agencies in 1990, its domestic violence homicide rate has dropped 90 percent, according to Gwinn, who hopes to see a similar outcome for Milwaukee.

On average, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office prosecutes more than 2,500 domestic violence cases each year, according to Kent Lovern, chief deputy district attorney at the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office and a longtime Sojourner board member.

“If we can put key partners together in one location, we can try to diagnose the co-occurring difficulties within those families at a time when they’re asking for our help,” said Lovern, who was one of the first Milwaukee proponents for this kind of all-inclusive center. “And I think that if we see a strengthening of families in this city, we’ll see a strengthening of neighborhoods.”

A view of the facility from the rooftop above the office area.

Sojourner Family Peace Center
Executive Director: Carmen Pitre
619 W. Walnut St., Milwaukee
Staff: 130-150
New facility size: 72,000 square feet
Architect: Zimmerman Architectural Studios Inc.
Building cost: About $21 million


Co-locating a cross sector of services

Within the new center, services will be provided by co-located partners: Sojourner Family Peace Center, the Milwaukee Police Department’s Sensitive Crimes Unit, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, Legal Action of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Public Schools, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Jewish Family Services of Milwaukee, Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare, Wraparound Milwaukee, Marquette University College of Nursing, and Aurora Health Care.

The center, which Sojourner anticipates will be move-in ready in December and fully operational in January, will be grounded by a social service perspective that incorporates law enforcement as it works to heal families ravaged by domestic abuse.

While some centers within the Family Justice Center model are law enforcement driven, Milwaukee’s infrastructure better warrants a social service emphasis in light of how advanced it is, according to Pitre.

Unlike many cities, Milwaukee has long had specializations that address sexual assault embedded in its police department and district attorney’s office. The Milwaukee Police Department contains a Sensitive Crimes Unit, and since 1975, the district attorney’s office has operated a specialty sexual assault unit that includes therapists who assist with the review of cases and outreach to sexual assault victims.

Milwaukee also has four specialty courts that hear nothing but sexual assault and homicide cases, and three additional courts that prosecute domestic violence and child abuse cases.

The Sojourner Family Peace Center’s focus on social services will build on those law enforcement specializations already in place while also tending to the long-term needs of survivors working to heal, a process that can take years.

“Social service agencies are better equipped to stay engaged with families as they’re on that journey of healing,” Pitre said.

This model “brings the best of both worlds together,” she added.

The new center will feature the Sojourner Truth House Shelter, with crisis housing for families in need. The shelter will contain 56 beds among single rooms, double rooms and 11 family rooms that can interconnect to accommodate larger families. The shelter will also include a full menu of amenities for those living there, including a living room for adults, a living room for teenagers, a café, a laundry room and a workout facility.

While the organization’s current shelter has two bathrooms for its residents, the new shelter will quadruple bathroom capacity with eight.

On the security side, the shelter will be staffed with a 24-hour security guard and will be outfitted with bullet-resistant glass and a security system through which visitors must be buzzed in.

The shelter, which hugs the corner of West Galena Street and Sixth Street, will also be surrounded by fencing and will sit atop a garage so that it is elevated off the ground.

“We tried to think as meaningfully as we could about the security features,” Pitre said, particularly as Sojourner Family Peace Center taps into a growing trend of hosting shelters at locations that are well-known and accessible in the community.

The reality, Pitre said, is that people know where the shelter is located or can find it through engines like Google Maps.

Operating the shelter more publicly “raises the bar,” Pitre said, as it pushes the community to take collective responsibility for the safety of women and families.

“It brings it out into the spotlight,” she said. “We can own it differently in the community.”

In addition to the shelter, the new facility will house Sojourner Family Peace Center’s case management services for survivors and children and those services that help survivors traverse the civil and criminal system.

Many of the center’s services catering specifically to youth will be headed by Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, which will provide physical, mental and dental services through its Child Advocacy Center.

Children’s Hospital also plans to staff the building with personnel from its Child Abuse Prevention Fund, which supports prevention measures in Wisconsin so children do not ever fall victim to abuse.

The shelter housed within the center is elevated off the ground above a garage and includes security features such as bullet-resistant glass.

The hospital will also locate Project Ujima at the new site, which helps young victims of abuse overcome their trauma and move beyond the cycle of violence.

Among the additional services to be made available at the Sojourner Family Peace Center:

  • The Milwaukee Police Department’s Sensitive Crimes Unit will be located in the building.
  • The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office will staff the building with district attorneys and victim witness personnel to help victims who have criminal cases pending or in the process of being charged.
  • Legal Action of Wisconsin will provide a paralegal and attorney to assist with the legal needs of individuals and families using the center
  • Milwaukee Public Schools will equip the center with a social worker.
  • Jewish Family Services of Milwaukee will provide two adult therapists who will support adults through trauma-related issues in an in-house health and wellness center.
  • The Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare will deploy a supervisor and six workers to the center to reinforce the safety of children impacted by family violence.
  • Wraparound Milwaukee will co-locate its Mobile Urgent Treatment Team in the building to respond to area children in crisis.
  • Marquette University College of Nursing will run a student/faculty health clinic, serving the basic health needs of the center’s adult clients, helping them find a medical home and helping them access insurance.
  • Aurora Health Care will provide sexual assault advocacy services and exams with a nurse.
  • An education center will serve as the backdrop for Sojourner’s outreach and youth initiatives and will also be open to neighborhood groups needing meeting space.
  • An interdenominational chapel and meditation center will be open for clients to worship in whichever ways are meaningful to them.

Off-site, Sojourner will continue facilitating recovery programming for domestic violence offenders at a space it leases out of Wisconsin Community Services’ building. The organization hopes to add to its programming for offenders in the future.

Localizing the national model

Among the earliest advocates of an all-inclusive center like the one in the works was Bob Chernow, president of the Tellier Foundation, which supports Milwaukee County organizations and projects.

Chernow, a futurist, began thinking about how Milwaukee could innovate its approach to domestic violence after attending a World Future Society conference, where California police veteran Bob Harrison highlighted how he had reduced domestic violence incidents in Vacaville, Calif., by 68 percent over five years.

Harrison now serves as president of California-based consultancy ER Harrison & Associates Inc. and leads police organizations through workshops on team development, strategy and planning.

After three years of struggling to find a leader or agency that would listen to him, Chernow connected with Lovern on his vision to bring Harrison to Milwaukee for an assessment of city resources that respond to family violence.

Harrison studied Milwaukee’s landscape of resources for more than two years, an effort funded by the Tellier Foundation, and in 2007 presented his findings to about 70 key stakeholders during a meeting convened by Barrett and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm.

It was Harrison who pointed Milwaukee in the direction of the Family Justice Center model – a model that quickly piqued the interest of those attending the meeting.

For Chisholm, the model’s approach to snuffing violence, not just healing it, complemented his philosophy on how an elected prosecutor should engage with the community.

“It’s important that we respond to crimes as they occur and hold people accountable, but it’s every bit as important that we think to the long-term health and safety of the community, and that means engaging in processes like this where we think we can do something that will turn the problem around,” Chisholm said.

The following year, a team of Milwaukee leaders traveled to San Diego to attend the annual Family Justice Center Conference, see a Family Justice Center firsthand and connect with others running centers around the country.

The prospect of introducing a Family Justice Center to Milwaukee prompted a 2009 merger of the Task Force on Family Violence and Sojourner Truth House, which resulted in the Sojourner Family Peace Center.

From there, the new organization established a group to identify a proper site for the new facility, with priority on finding a location that would be near the courthouse, would be accessible via bus, and would be welcomed by the surrounding neighborhood.

After whittling the list of possibilities down from 50, Pitre said the selected site along West Walnut Street and Sixth Street was one the search group could not take off its list.

Sojourner Family Peace Center purchased the site from former owner Prince Hall Masons for $300,000 in late 2010 and demolished the Plymouth Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, which stood vacant on the property, in 2011.

When Pitre, Chisholm and Lovern approached Peggy Troy, chief executive officer of Children’s Hospital, and Bob Duncan, executive vice president, community services at the hospital, about a partnership opportunity three years ago, the hospital jumped aboard almost instantly. During initial discussions, Duncan said CHW recognized that the new center’s mission paralleled its own – to have the healthiest kids in the country living in Wisconsin.

It became apparent “that this is the right thing to do for our children and families,” he said.

In addition to contributing its child services to the Sojourner Family Peace Center, Children’s Hospital has been a significant funding force for the project. Thanks to a joint effort on the part of CHW and Sojourner, the center garnered a grant of up to $10.6 million from the State Building Commission at the end of 2013.

Pitre credits Troy and her team for listing the Sojourner Family Peace Center among their top priorities.

“Without her leadership, I don’t think this would have happened,” Pitre said.

In addition to state funds, $4.4 million for the project came from a New Market Tax Credit transaction, and more than $12 million was generated by donations to the Sojourner Courage Capital Campaign. The funding pot passed the campaign goal of $26.5 million in March.

Funds in excess of construction costs will be used to cover a decade of incremental operating costs for the building, according to Pitre.

Pitre said she has an “amazing sense of gratitude” for donors’ respect of Sojourner and its services, adding that the success of the capital campaign says something about people’s faith in the organization.

“We owe a great debt of gratitude to the founders before us that built such a strong foundation,” she said.

The purple beam signed at the groundbreaking ceremony.

Stopping the cycle of violence

Now, as Pitre stands before the center, a sense of awe tops her jumble of feelings on the project.

“I know what it’s like to be in awe – to be in awe of something – to be struck by awe,” she said.
She also knows her job is far from over.

“Now, we have the work of really sewing together the fabric of our services and looking at how we all need to change to better serve families,” Pitre said.

Once Sojourner Family Peace Center opens, one of the first steps will be ensuring a seamless continuation of services for the organization’s client base, which last year exceeded 8,500 women, children and men.

The long-term vision emphasizes extinguishing the generational cycle of violence that domestic abuse breeds – an observation Lovern has made personally during his career of prosecuting domestic violence cases and gun and gang offenders.

“As we would analyze the history of those young offenders who were committing violent crimes, we were seeing that many of these young men were coming out of households that were afflicted by domestic violence or child abuse or neglect,” Lovern said.

Delivering services that get at the root causes of family struggles, identifying warning signals of family violence at earlier stages, and treating children at earlier stages of family conflict will be key in preventing violence among future generations, he said.

To measure outcomes of the new center, Sojourner is assembling a committee that will establish which metrics should be measured and can be measured, and how different clients define success.

To Pitre, success will be gauged as the center’s partners find new ways to work together so families are reaching out for help earlier in the cycle of violence, more young people are engaged in curbing violence, and partners have more robust conversations about their roles in keeping families healthy.

“I think we have good will,” Pitre said. “I think we have good relationships, and I think families deserve this integrated services model. And I believe we’ll get there.”

Pictured at the project groundbreaking in October 2014 (from left): Bea Benidt Webster, Charles E. Benidt Family Foundation; Casey Gwinn, Alliance for HOPE International; Bob Duncan, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin; Michelle Mettner, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin; Rebecca House, Harley-Davidson and Sojourner board president; Gov. Scott Walker; Mayor Tom Barrett; Carmen Pitre, Sojourner Family Peace Center; Kent Lovern, Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office and Sojourner board member; Chief Edward Flynn, Milwaukee Police Department; Milwaukee County District Attorney, John Chisholm; and Cecelia Gore, Brewers Community Foundation.

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