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Paving the Way To Hope:

Family Justice Center Offers Path to Healing

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Alameda County

The manager of the “Biggest Little Motel” in Oakland had finally had enough.

It was just after 4 pm and the couple was fighting, screaming and yelling. The woman sounded like she was hurt. Then there was the sound of breaking glass, a window.

That was the last straw. He marched up to the room and told them he was going to call the police.

When Herron, the man in the room, heard that, he decided it was time to leave. He had been doing drugs. His girlfriend, Misti, had just been released from the hospital, her back fractured and one eye blind from a punch he gave her. That did not stop him from sexually assaulting her in the room and threatening to take out her other eye if she resisted.

Motel 6
After leaving the hospital on August 18, 2016 Herron took Misti to a motel where he sexually assaulted and threatened to blind her other eye.

Herron grabbed Misti and dragged her to their minivan. He pushed her into the front seat and then got in and started driving.

The Escape

When he left the motel parking lot, he turned left onto MacArthur Blvd and then left again on 98th Ave and headed up the hill. The road takes you under Interstate 580, the entrance to the Oakland Zoo is just to the right of the overpass, and then up into the Oakland Hills, an expanse of open space thickly wooded with steep drop-offs. She was sure that he was going to kill her and dump her body.

Two blocks up from MacArthur, he stopped at a red light and Misti heard a voice in her head.

“It wasn't a loud voice … it was just a very firm: "Run," she said. “I have a broken back, I've got blood coming out of my eye ... I was in a hospital gown. So, I did, I opened the door, I fell out, and I remember rolling a little bit down 98th.”

The one clear thought in her mind was to get to the Eastmont Police Substation some two miles away.

She would zig zag down Macarthur Blvd., all the while Herron would try to hit her with the van, turn around, try again, turn around and try again. She prayed that police would see her. They were up and down that stretch of road all the time. But there were no police and not a single passing car stopped to help.

When she got to Castlemont High School, she collapsed in the road. As Herron drove by, he barely missed her. She rolled over and got up again. She credits God for her stamina to keep going. She reached MacArthur and 73rd Ave, a tangled intersection where five roads meet in the heart of East Oakland.

It was here that Herron caught up to Misti and tried to get her back in the van. But with the Eastmont Police Substation in sight, just 300 yards away, Misti sat down in the road, willing her body to melted into the asphalt. He could not budge her. He gave up and sped off.

Misti got up and walked to the station.

The End of a Nightmare

At the police station, Misti told the police officer interviewing her everything. She told him about the years of beatings, sexual assault, drugs, and isolation from friends and family. The police asked her if she wanted to call her family. She did, but the shame ran too deep.

How could Misti explain to her stepdad and mom that she had allowed this to happen to her?

Herron had been manipulative and abusive throughout much of their 10-year relationship, but in the past few years, she had lived completely under his control, prohibited from visiting her family, even having to ask his permission to use the bathroom. Always a hard worker, at 41, she no longer had a job. Her daughter had gone to live with Misti’s mom. And now, Misty had lost an eye.

After the interview was over, the police took her to a hotel where she spent the night. In the meantime, they found Herron back at the same motel doing drugs with another woman.

Misty
Misti Harrelson, survivor of domestic abuse during a recent visit to the Family Justice Center. Hear more about Misti on the Justice for All Podcast

The Beginning of Recovery

The next morning, the police took her to the Family Justice Center in Oakland. This is where Misti met her “dream team,” the people who would help her with the legal proceedings as well as give her the tools to rebuild her confidence and begin to forgive herself. The brainchild of Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, the Family Justice Center brings together more than 30 different agencies under one roof, a one-stop shop for victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, elder abuse, human trafficking and child abuse.

At the Family Justice Center, Misti began to reassemble her life, starting with finding shelter and obtaining a restraining order against Herron. That is also where she would meet with Kelli Sage, a victim-witness advocate for the DA’s office, who would guide her through the legal process and provide her with emotional support, even sitting beside her during court proceedings.

In 2018, the Family Justice Center provided services to nearly 14,000 people, about 2,500 of them for the first-time. The majority like Misti receive services over multiple years as they obtain the support and tools to rebuild their lives.

While Misti came to the center because she was involved in a criminal case with the Police Department and the District Attorney’s office, many are not pressing charges or have even filed a police report. That does not bar them from obtaining services. If they want help, they will get it. This fact, for O’Malley, represents success.

The mission to help victims in Alameda County is not new. It dates back nearly half a century to when then-District Attorney D. Lowell Jensen decided that it was time to change the way the system was treating victims. They had been seen as a critical component of the justice system when it came to getting convictions, but outside of that, not much thought was given to helping in their recovery.

He would start the nation’s first Victim-Witness Assistance Division, which sought to guide victims through the legal process and support them with the emotional trauma of their experiences. That was the first step.

Still, with resources spread out between six different courts and more than 20 locations, a major stumbling block for victims continued to be accessing services. At a time when everything seems to be coming apart, the last thing a victim needs is to figure out where to go and who to contact. Witnessing this, O’Malley took Jensen’s vision to the next step, founding the Family Justice Center in 2003.

The idea behind the Family Justice Center was to house all the resources in one place to meet victims’ short-term needs. But over time, it would become apparent that the victims required more support to rebuild their lives and ensure they wouldn’t fall prey to abusers again.

Nancy O'Malley
Nancy O’Malley, Alameda County District Attorney
Stephen Murphy
Stephen Murphy, the associate director of the Alameda County Family Justice Center

Mental health counseling is now provided, and in 2015, the Family Justice Center launched STEP-UP (Survivor Training and Empowerment Program – Utilizing your Potential) a 7-week course that combines skills training such as financial literacy literacy and job seeking with group-based empowerment activities. Misti is now one of over 300 graduates of STEP-UP. She continues to work with the current members of the program every week as a resource and support. Through the program, Misti rebuilt her credit, began to regain her confidence and became part of what she describes as a “sisterhood,” bonding with women who have been through similar experiences.