Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 2, 2015

Putting change in the hands of the community

Dr. Valerie Radu is the executive director of the Family Justice Center in Chattanooga. She hopes to reduce the rate of relationship violence in the area by using research to develop “best practices.” - (Photo by David Laprad)

A sign near Dr. Valerie Radu’s desk serves as a reminder to herself and an invitation to others: “Write your own life story,” the small placard says.

Radu is the executive director of the Family Justice Center (FJC) in Chattanooga, a federal and state government funded program focused on reducing relationship violence in Tennessee. A child of missionaries, she grew up in a family in which service to others was important. But as a social scientist, she wants to do more than meet immediate needs; she wants to bring about lasting change by using research to develop “best practices.”

The words on the placard, therefore, remind her to follow not just her heart but also her head as she leads the center. “We want to change the way people think about and address relationship violence,” she says.

Opening July 1, the FJC will serve as a hub for programs that exist to help people affected by relationship violence. “We won’t be providing the services but managing the people who offer them,” she says.

McKamey Animal Shelter will be one of the organizations offering aid under the umbrella of the FJC. “A pet can be a barrier to someone leaving a complicated situation,” Radu says. “Maybe you and I are having issues, and I don’t feel safe anymore, but I have a cat, and I don’t want to leave it behind because you might hurt it. McKamey will have a kennel where I can temporarily leave my companion animal.”

The FJC will also be hosting a learning clinic for social work students attending Southern Adventist University, who will not only provide free counseling and other services to clients but also use research to bring about change. “They’re going to do lethality assessments with the Chattanooga Police Department,” she says. “When an officer responds to a domestic violence call, he or she will ask a series of questions the learning clinic will then score to assess risk in that situation.”

Radu hopes the FJC, which is part of a statewide alliance of justice centers, will have a tremendous impact on Tennessee, which has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the nation. “Within three years, we hope to have indicators showing we’ve made progress,” she says.

Radu’s childhood would make an interesting story in and of itself. She was born in Africa, where her family lived until she was 12. The abundance of violence in the country drove them back to the U.S., where they lived in the northwest for several years, Radu’s family then moved to Montgomery, Ala., while she attended a private high school in Lumberton, Miss. Her first month there, someone burned a cross on school property. “I had no context for why because I hadn’t grown up there,” she says.

Radu did grow up in a household in which service to others was important, so when the time for college arrived, she chose to study social work. “My father was a pastor, and my mother was a nurse,” she says. “They taught me to offer support to people who are going through things.”

Radu earned an undergraduate degree in social work at Southern Adventist University and a master’s degree in the same field at Walla Walla University in Washington. She then secured her doctorate degree at Case Western Reserve University.

Radu’s career in social work began at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger/T.C. Thompson Children’s Hospital in Chattanooga, where she handled child abuse cases. There were no easy days, she says, but she did meet “a lot of gracious families that taught me a lot about life.”

Next, Radu spent four years working with the elderly in rural areas. During this time, she learned about how people take care of each other in remote communities. “I also learned a lot about faith, because faith was a big deal to those people,” she says. “It was a wonderful experience.”

In time, Southern Adventist asked Radu to teach a class. She’d never thought about teaching but  jumped into the fray, initially to her regret.

“I taught Human Behavior in a Social Environment, and it was terrible,” she says. “My students were mean to me. I was young, and I had no experience, and they knew it.”

Radu stayed the course, though, and eventually began teaching full time. During her tenure at Southern Adventist, she also eventually ran the social work department and helped the department to become accredited.

Radu’s success at Southern Adventist prompted the University of Tennessee of Chattanooga (UTC), which had just lost its social work accreditation, to reach out to Radu. In 2005, she became chair of UTC’s social work department, which she helped to regain accreditation. The latter task was difficult but rewarding. “That was one of the most grueling experiences I’ve had,” she says, “but we were able to design a cutting edge curriculum focused on social justice and social change.”

Through such projects as the creation of free stores and her own volunteer work in public housing, Radu learned even more about the power of community. “When you have a community engaged in what you’re doing, amazing things can happen,” she says.

Radu had already decided to leave academia and become a consultant when she was given the opportunity to become executive director of the FJC. She accepted the challenge. “This position appealed to me because I’m not only a clinical social worker, I’m also a systems person,” she says. “And the statewide alliance of justice centers is going to create a huge systems change for Tennessee.”

Outside of work, Radu stays busy raising 16-year-old twins and managing two hiking groups, including Chatt Trekkers locally. “Wellness helps me to focus on the important things in life, and to relieve stress,” she says.

Everything Radu does is another chapter in her own life story - a story she hopes will convey the positive impact she had on her community. “I like complicated projects that can change lives,” she says. “I’m excited about using my skills in a way that will hopefully allow me to leave a positive legacy.”