Catherine Johnson, 36, Defender of Families
Her first client was a 36-year-old woman whose recent hysterectomy had spurred suicidal thoughts. Catherine Johnson’s heart was racing.
“It took her the entire session to get ten words out. She said, ‘I was sexually abused by my grandfather. I am thinking about harming my kids,’” Catherine says. “She was wailing. I said, ‘You have to come back tomorrow.’”
Catherine’s mentor, who had been listening in, told her very few people would have been able to handle that situation. “You’ve got something special in you to do this work,” he told her.
Today Catherine leads the Guilford County Family Justice Center, bringing together a coalition of agencies to serve individuals and families in crisis.
She grew up with her mom and grandmother in Roanoke Rapids, NC, a tiny town of 10,000 where her family had lived for 100 years and everyone knew everyone. Her grandfather had been a county commissioner, her grandmother a school teacher.
“I was raised by public servants who really believed in giving back to their community,” Catherine said. “It was an early model for me about learning to love your neighbor and be connected.”
She defied the town’s expectations when she moved away to attend Florida State – a university six times larger than her hometown. She felt, “I’ve got something big to do. It’s bigger than myself, bigger than my family.”
She studied psychology. “I didn’t really know what I was going to do with my life, but I was really interested in people and why people do what they do.”
She joined Chi Omega to give herself a sense of community. She became the new member educator and then chapter president. It taught her leadership skills, etiquette, and how to interact with people from different backgrounds. After college, she took a position as a national consultant with the sorority, traveling to schools to access local chapters. It gave her a lot of practice in the professional world while allowing her some time to decide what she wanted to study in grad school.
She decided to go to UNCG to study in the marriage and family counseling program.
“I really found energy in working with multiple members of a family at the same time. The more I did that, the more I really liked it,” she says.
She got a position with the nonprofit Family Services of Davidson County, working with children, families, and couples as a therapist and victim advocate. After that first, suicidal client, she found she had a knack for working with people in crisis situations.
“You’ve got to lean right into it,” Catherine says. “In that moment and many of the moments I spent with that client, I would ask myself, ‘Do you have what it takes?’ The answer is yes, you have what it takes….Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that said I will try again tomorrow.”
Catherine soon became the director of crisis intervention services for the nonprofit. She oversaw the domestic violence shelter, the crisis hotline, and help set up a transitional housing program.
“While it is challenging work, it is incredibly rewarding,” she says. If we only ever worked with an individual when they were hurting, but we never got to the see the pathway to hope and the pathway to healing, we would all be stuck in the tragedy. Getting to travel with someone on the path to healing is very, very rewarding.”
She was looking her next professional challenge when Guilford County decided to launch its Family Justice Center.
The Family Justice Center, managed by Guilford County government, brings together 15 organizations that serve individuals and families dealing with issues such as domestic violence, child abuse or neglect, and elder abuse. It includes organizations that provide legal assistance, services for victims, health and mental health services, and more.
The services already existed in the community before the Family Justice Center opened in 2015, with Catherine as its first executive director. Now all those services are located in one spot.
“It is really about connections and communication and mediation. All of those things that make families successful are the things that help communities be successful. Many days I still feel like in I’m still doing marriage and family counseling,” she says.
Before the Family Justice Center opened, Guilford County had the most domestic violence homicides in the state. If a person wanted to file a restraining order against a spouse, on average that would have to visit up to six different offices. It could take eight hours to get what they needed, and it only happened after they repeated their story over and over again to difference agencies.
If a victim called 911, in the first 72 hours they would receive up to 25 follow up calls, and have to fill out 72 different pieces of paperwork.
People in crisis don’t always have the emotional resources to handle that, Catherine says.
“Victims were being blamed for not following through, but systems and services were challenging to navigate,” she says. “Great services existed before the Family Justice Center. What has changed is the coordination of those services.”
Now, a person who needs a restraining order can get that same service in a few hours and one trip to the Family Justice Center, which now has offices in Greensboro and High Point. Some 45,000 people have visited for help.
There’s been a 75 percent reduction in the number of domestic violence homicides in Guilford County. And other cities and counties are looking to this organization to learn how to set up their own justice centers.
“Our community should be so proud we figured this out,” Catherine says. “Ten years from now, when I see someone and I ask, ‘Where do you find hope?’ I want them to say the Family Justice Center. I want us to be that place of hope and healing both in the crisis and beyond.”