Until today, Fairfax County residents experiencing domestic and sexual violence had to travel to the Historic Courthouse in Fairfax or the South County Human Services Building in Alexandria to talk with an advocate face-to-face.
For people living in the northwestern part of the county, the time and distance required for such a trip added another obstacle to the many challenges that victims face when seeking help, such as safety and financial concerns.
Fairfax County hopes to make that decision a little bit easier with the creation of a new Domestic Violence Action Center that will provide advocacy services in a location more convenient for North County residents.
Located in the Herndon Neighborhood Resource Center on Elden Street, the Domestic Violence Action Center North County celebrated its launch with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sept. 21 and is officially open to clients as of 9:00 a.m. on Sept. 27.
“A crucial component of assisting victims of domestic violence is providing easy access to the necessary resources that the county and others make available to them,” Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust said. “In doing so, geography is key...Rather than making the trip and traveling to Alexandria or Fairfax, Herndon residents who need these services have it available in our own neighborhood, and that’s awesome.”
Like its counterparts in Fairfax and Alexandria, the DVAC in Herndon is staffed with victim advocates who provide short-term case management, crisis intervention and counseling, housing and emergency shelter information, and criminal and civil justice systems education, as well as referrals to other county and community resources.
The North County action center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Fridays, though in the future, those hours could be tailored based on what the community needs, Fairfax County Domestic and Sexual Violence Services director Toni Zollicoffer says.
Since the Town of Herndon’s populace is almost 34 percent Hispanic, the DVAC has two victim advocates who are bilingual, speaking English and Spanish. Fairfax County also has advocates who are fluent in Korean, Farsi, Persian, Pashto, Urdu, Hindi, Dari, and Somali.
The need for a third domestic violence action center in Fairfax County has been evident for at least a decade, and as of Aug. 30, the zip code for the Town of Herndon had 145 residents who were already using county domestic and sexual violence services, according to Foust, whose district encompasses the county north of Route 7 along with Herndon and McLean.
However, budget cutbacks in the wake of the Great Recession in 2008 put funding for the project in limbo.
In the end, bringing plans for a North County DVAC to fruition turned out to be more a matter of redistributing resources than acquiring them. Fairfax County Domestic and Sexual Violence Services formed the new center without any additional funds or staff.
“We would love to expand, of course, which would cost us more money. We’d have to find resources,” Zollicoffer said. “But we just shifted around what we had in order to make office hours here.”
The center was also made possible by support from Cornerstones, a nonprofit organization that provides shelter, housing, food, childcare, and other human services.
Based in Reston, Cornerstones operates the Herndon Neighborhood Resource Center, which connects community members with social services, and the Connections for Hope Partnership, a collaboration between county agencies and nonprofits to provide resources like legal services for immigrants, healthcare, education, and employment assistance on the same campus in Herndon.
With the neighborhood resource center, Connections for Hope, the Embry Rucker Community Shelter it runs in Reston, and other programs, Cornerstones serves more than 16,000 people annually.
In working with those individuals and families, the nonprofit’s staff saw a growing need for resources specifically aimed at people experiencing domestic or sexual violence.
A partnership with Fairfax County to fill that gap in services for North County residents seemed like a logical step to take, since Cornerstones was already providing many of the services that a victim may need, such as housing assistance and childcare, through the Herndon Neighborhood Resource Center.
With its unassuming façade that blends in seamlessly with the adjacent storefronts, the center’s proximity to a variety of transportation options and familiarity with the surrounding community cemented it as an ideal location for the North County Domestic Violence Action Center.
“The neighborhood resource center is a trusted resource,” Cornerstones CEO Kerrie Wilson said. “It’s surrounded by some of the largest multifamily housing neighborhoods, all of whom are people that use the center daily, so it just makes a lot of sense.”
The new DVAC’s launch coincides with the approach of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which has occurred every October since its conception by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1981.
The NCADV defines domestic violence as “abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetuated by one intimate partner against another.” It can take different forms, including physical and sexual violence, emotional and psychological abuse, and stalking.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in four women and nearly one in 10 men in the U.S. have experienced sexual or physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.
The CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey also found that more than 43 million women and 38 million men have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
In addition to posing immediate safety risks, domestic or intimate partner violence has a lasting impact on the victim’s physical and mental health, leading to often chronic medical conditions and issues like depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Those psychological effects can extend beyond the person directly experiencing the abuse, as in cases where a child witnesses violence in their household.
“That creates an adverse childhood experience that perpetuates a cycle of violence and trauma in lives of others,” Fairfax County Department of Family Services director Michael Becketts said. “It affects work and school performance. It supports and promotes toxic stress in people that leads to poor health outcomes. It adversely impacts economic and housing stability, mental health, and substance abuse.”
Fairfax County offers a 24-hour domestic and sexual violence hotline at 703-360-7273, though if there is an immediate danger, people should call or text 911. There is also a national hotline from the Rape, Abuse and Incest Network at 1-800-656-HOPE, and Childhelp runs the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453.
In many cases of domestic or sexual violence, the “first responder” tends to be a family member or friend that the individual trusts, according to Zollicoffer.
“Family violence impacts so many parts of a person’s life and so many parts of the community and a sense of safety,” Zollicoffer said. “And so, if you’re going to play a part, it really means that you have some compassion, some empathy.”
Providing services without judgment is crucial for Fairfax County’s Domestic Violence Action Centers, and Zollicoffer emphasizes that the county’s victim advocates are there to support what their clients want, not to make decisions for them.
Fairfax County Domestic and Sexual Violence Services staff sees the North County DVAC as a step forward in their efforts to eliminate the stigma that victims and survivors often contend with when seeking help.
Future domestic violence action centers will likely look more like the North County center than the Fairfax or Alexandria ones, integrated into the community with other services like medical care or legal assistance instead of being sectioned off in an imposing government building.
County staff hopes to eventually move the Alexandria DVAC out of the South County Human Services Building and into a community setting akin to the Herndon Neighborhood Resource Center.
Zollicoffer also suggests Annandale as one possible location for an expansion.
“We want to go to where the clients are, because this is really about them and not necessarily about us,” DVAC project coordinator Angela Yeboah said. “So, we’re looking towards mobile advocacy and going to where the need is great…That’s what we strive for: to be able to help people as much as we can and to be able to provide them with the resources that they need.”