, May 28, 2022

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Solano DA sues county supervisors to keep troubled Family Justice Center

  •   5 min reads
Solano DA sues county supervisors to keep troubled Family Justice Center
The Family Justice Center building in Fairfield.

FAIRFIELD – The Solano County District Attorney’s Office is suing the county Board of Supervisors in an attempt to overturn the supervisors’ decision to take budgetary authority over the troubled Family Justice Center away from the DA’s office. This comes as newly obtained court records show the center’s director intervened in a family member’s paternity case, leading to a criminal case’s dismissal.

The lawsuit filed last month alleges that the supervisors violated state law when they voted during a budget hearing in June to move control of the Family Justice Center’s budget from the DA’s office to the county administrator. The lawsuit alleges that the action was not given proper notice in the supervisors’ agenda and should therefore be voided. If the lawsuit is successful, the board would need to take another vote at a future meeting.

The Family Justice Center offers services to victims of child abuse and domestic violence. But a June 1 report by the county civil grand jury found numerous problems with how the office handles victim outreach and services, saying its space was inadequate for victim privacy, it offered too few services and was a drain on the county budget. During the supervisors’ June meeting, Supervisor Jim Spering called the report “very disturbing.”

In a response to the report, District Attorney Krishna Abrams either disputed the findings or said that they had already been addressed.

The Family Justice Center first opened in 2011 with a mission of connecting victims of domestic violence with law enforcement and community-based resources. It offered confidential needs assessments and partnered with nonprofits for referrals, making it a “one-stop shop” for families in need of assistance so victims were not lost going from agency to agency looking for help.

But Solano County’s Family Justice Center has faced allegations of dysfunction for years.

The county civil grand jury issued a report in 2017 that found that the participating partner organizations were inconsistent and it was not providing adequate services, that the configuration of the building did not provide adequate privacy to victims, and that having only one location in the county made programs difficult to access. It also found that its share of the county budget had increased and recommended it establish a relationship with a foundation to raise funds.

District Attorney Krishna Abrams in a video from last year.
District Attorney Krishna Abrams in a video from last year.

The grand jury’s 2021 report found many of the same problems. It found that its Fairfield facility was still inadequate, that its space was limited and confidential meetings were held in cubicles, not closed offices. While the DA’s office added white noise machines and relocated partners’ offices since the 2017 report, it found that privacy was still inadequate.

“Individuals can hear conversations through heating/air conditioning ducts, open doors, and open spaces (cubicles) used for interviews,” the report stated. “There are too few rooms that can serve as confidential spaces.”

The 2021 report found that there were too few on-site partners and that many partners listed by the Family Justice Center in 2020 were not present when the grand jury toured the facility. Meanwhile, the share of its budget from the county continued to increase. While a nonprofit was registered shortly after the last report, it had no website and it was unclear how much it had raised.

The grand jury also pointed out that the center still had only one location in Fairfield, which could take four hours to access by public transportation from Vallejo, while Alameda County had partnered with Lyft to provide free rides to its Family Justice Center.

Finally, the grand jury report said that it had received information about an “unprofessional” work environment that could interfere with its mission of caring for trauma victims. It found staff training was inadequate and there was no process for client feedback.

In its response to the report, the DA’s office said that it was maximizing space in its small office, had some staff presence in Vallejo, and would offer transportation to anyone who needed it. It disputed that there was an unprofessional working environment and that it had inadequate services.

The grand jury recommended that the county consider moving the administration of the Family Justice Center from the DA’s office to the Department of Health and Human Services. At a June 24 county board budget hearing, Spering recommended the supervisors move control of the center’s budget from the DA’s office to the county administrator, pending further study. It passed unanimously with the rest of the county budget.

The grand jury report “is very disturbing,” Spering said, “and some of the comments we're getting from some of the other providers is disturbing, and it just needs to be looked at.”

But Abrams – who reportedly was present for the meeting but wasn’t asked to speak – sent a letter to the supervisors a month later saying that the board did not properly notice that it would be discussing the Family Justice Center, instead taking action during a general budget hearing.

“While the Board's intent may have been purely budgetary, as implemented this action effectively transferred authority over the administration of the Family Justice Center from the District Attorney's Office to the County Administrator's Office for all purposes,” Deputy District Attorney Matthew Olsen wrote in a July 22 “cure and correct” letter. Olsen alleged that the supervisors violated the Brown Act, a state law that sets requirements for government agencies to hold open and transparent meetings.

In a response to the DA’s letter, Solano County counsel Bernadette Curry wrote that because the budget hearing was properly noticed, there was no violation of the Brown Act.

But the DA’s lawsuit, filed on Aug. 31, contends that the supervisors’ action effectively took more than budgetary control from the DA’s office.

Justice Center director intervenes in family law case

A declaration from Family Justice Center director Angel Aguilar stated that he was now subject to new oversight and instructions from the county administrator in spending and hiring. In one case, he wrote that he had offered a job to a social worker, but review of the application delayed filling the position for six weeks. The delays and uncertainty in staffing had interfered with the Family Justice Center’s ability to provide timely victim services, he wrote.

But an incident involving Aguilar suggests that the Family Justice Center’s issues may run deeper than has been publicly revealed. Court records obtained by the Vallejo Sun show that Aguilar intervened in a family member’s paternity case. In a family law proceeding, Aguilar served notice directly on the other party instead of his attorney, a violation of the rules of civil procedure.  

Aguilar was an employee of the DA’s office and the man he served was also a criminal defendant in a domestic violence case. When Aguilar’s involvement was revealed in the criminal case, the prosecutor moved to dismiss it.

Judge Daniel Healy said during a hearing that he had “a number of concerns” about Aguilar’s involvement and that he thought that “obviously” an employee of the DA’s office with a personal relationship with the victim had an obligation to disclose it.

Asked why its employee apparently interfered with a prosecution, DA’s office spokesperson Monica Martinez wrote in an email that the case was dismissed “to maintain our ethical standards and avoid any possible appearance of impropriety.”

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