PEF Black Caucus, Region 8 women take on painful topic of domestic violence
STORY AND PHOTOS By SHERRY HALBROOK
Anyone, anywhere and at any age can become a victim of domestic violence.
That’s why the PEF Black Caucus Albany Chapter and the PEF Region 8 Women’s Program teamed up recently to offer PEF members and the public a program on domestic violence – what it is, who is experiencing it and how community groups and services are responding and working to prevent it.
The program, which was offered at PEF headquarters in Latham April 26, featured a panel of speakers that included: Chris Runge, director of the Public Employees Division of the American Federation of Teachers, who was the moderator; PEF member Brook Clarke, a hearing officer for the state Office of Children and Family Services; Alicia Borns of the state Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence; Martha Warner, crisis manager of Unity House Domestic Violence Services in Troy; Albany City Police Officer Lawan Cancer; and Brianna Wiederhold, advocacy supervisor for Equinox in Albany County.
The panelists and moderator brought personal and professional insights and experience to share with the audience, which had lots of questions for them.
PEF Vice President Sharon V. DeSilva, who serves on the Albany PEF Black Caucus Council, welcomed the panelists. PEF Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie offered a special prayer and poet Carol Durant shared two of her poems. PEF member and Black Caucus Council member Tania Tinley introduced Runge as the program moderator, and in her closing remarks, PEF Black Caucus President Elizabeth Cheese thanked the panelists and the audience for participating.
Warner, from Unity House, said the issue of domestic violence has become the focal point of her life since her son-in-law shot and killed her daughter after five years of marriage.
“Warner said, “My daughter was 17 when she met her future husband. Victims don’t want to tell their family what’s going on. It took my daughter 10 days to tell me that he had tied her up and raped her.”
“My family was ignorant. We didn’t think this could happen,” Warner said. “Now I am aware. I know this is what I’m supposed to do for the rest of my life.”
Warner said, “I deal with ‘walk-ins’ at Unity House on a daily basis. I’ve learned that abusers choose vulnerable victims. After they gain their victim’s trust, they start beating them down (psychologically) and making them feel worthless. It’s a control issue.”
Borns agreed. “It is about control. It is very strategic. They (abusers) wait to start the power, control and isolation of their victim,” she said. Once the abuser feels they have their victim trapped, the victim knows there is always the threat of violence if they try to escape or challenge the abuser’s control.
“Nearly 60 to 70 percent of homicides (by abusers) happen right after the victim leaves or threatens to leave,” Borns said.
Runge said she has an old and dear friend who was trapped in such a relationship, but she felt unsure of how to help her.
“As friends and family members we don’t really know what to do. We want to respect their privacy and the sanctity of their marriage. At first, I didn’t equate what was happening to her as domestic violence,” Runge said.
Since her friend has received professional counseling, both she and her husband are having joint counseling every two weeks and this has been going on for three years.
“The counselor told them that she had to become the dominant person in their relationship,” Runge said.
Officer Cancer said it is important to talk to children and educate them about the dangers of such abusive relationships and how to ask for help.
“We have to talk to children and educate family members, especially children,” he said.
When DeSilva asked how soon that education of children should begin, Cancer and Borns said, “Early!”
Warner said, “The younger, the better.”
Borns said that too often adults give children potentially dangerous messages, without realizing it.
“We tell girls, ‘When a little boy hits you, that means he likes you!’” Borns said.
Runge agreed, noting that parents encourage their children to climb up on “Santa’s” lap, or to hug and kiss adult relatives and family friends the child barely knows.
“We’ve been cultured to allow people we don’t know to come into our personal body space,” Runge said. “I think a lot of girls are being controlled by their boyfriends.”
Borns said it’s important to teach boys and girls about healthy boundaries, consent and dissent. Teens and even pre-teens may send and receive hundreds of texts every day on the cell phones, and those texts can lead to ‘sexting’ or sending suggestive comments and even nude photos. It’s very hard for parents to be alert and aware of what’s being communicated to and by their children.
Clarke said she hears cases of alleged child abuse, and often a parent is involved in some way. And when the parent or other adult wants to report or file charges of abuse, they are usually unfamiliar with that legal process and terminology and need guidance.
“It’s very important for a clerk or someone to be there to help them,” Clarke said. “People need to be conscious of the seriousness of what they say and what they write in reporting abuse. They tend to want to minimize or sugarcoat things. They don’t want to say it’s as bad as it really is. You have to listen to them, more than talk. Once they start to unload, it just pours out of them and they may overlook something that it is important to tell.”
A PEF member said he is concerned about a co-worker, but he doesn’t know what to say or do.
“Lots of times, people just need to talk to someone about what is happening to them,” Wiederhold said. “When people call our Equinox hotline, they often just want to talk and share the things that are frightening or worrying them”.
“People don’t realize how much comes into play before someone calls you in the middle of the night to ask for help,” Clarke said.
“Don’t (give them) ultimatums,” Borns said. Many times, victims are struggling to find the means and confidence to leave an abusive relationship. “Tell them, ‘I’m always here for you. If you want to talk or you need my help, call me.’“
Wiederhold said that when people come to Equinox for help, it will not let them down.
“Whatever it is, we’ll be there by their side,” she said. “We have advocates in every court in Albany County. We try to make it as easy for them as possible. If the district attorney has enough evidence to convict the abuser, the victim may not need to testify in court. We try to get them into shelters or apartments.”
Black Caucus member Oji Reed asked, “How often do men ask for help and what is available to them?”
Clarke said, “I treat both parents the same way. But often men blame the mother (for child abuse). Men tell me, ‘She keeps trying to get me to hit her.’”
Warner said she had helped two men – one young and one elderly – in one week recently. “The elderly man didn’t want to leave his house because he felt it was his. And the younger man was being abused by his father. We found housing for him and his wife and kids.”
Borns said, “In New York state, all genders are to be served by all services.”
As regards men complaining to the police of being abused, officer Cancer said, “We don’t see it a lot.”
Reed said, “I’ve seen men who will put a hurt on another man, but they won’t hit a woman.”
Wiederhold said, “It’s 100 percent the same services (at Equinox) for men and women.”
Tinley asked if there has been an increase in men reporting domestic violence since gay marriage became legal.
Officer Cancer said, “Yes. Someone (in both same sex and heterosexual relationships) comes home drunk and that’s when it happens.”
Borns said, “It’s important to zone in on where (in the relationship) is the control.”
And Clarke said she has found, “People will show you who they are, if you just let them.”
Overall the panelists emphasized the importance of continuously educating the public about how to recognize the “red flags” that signal a dangerous or potentially dangerous situation.
Reed asked panelists how they deal with cultural differences. “We have lots of different cultures coming together now,” he said.
“We must take cultural differences into account,” Clarke said.
“Religious or cultural, we must practice sensitivity,” Wiederhold said. “We see it every day.” She cited her own example. “Where I grew up in a rural area, we were taught to ‘Keep it in. Don’t call the police.’”
Officer Cancer said, “I don’t see that. Bullies prey on a person’s weakness. We have a lot of seminars on bullying.”
Warner added that she thinks many African Americans are afraid to call the police for help.
Cancer agreed, saying, “That’s a major issue.”
When a PEF member asked, “How can we help you make your programs better,” Warner and Wiederhold said both Unity House and Equinox need more space for people needing refuge and help.
“They need help all year long, not just at Christmas,” Borns said.
She added that money plays a role in domestic abuse and controlling finances is a way to trap and control victims.
“People are trying to rebuild their lives. They may have been the victims of economic abuse, which can be withholding money or harassing you at work so you’ll lose your job,” Borns said.
When asked if a person in that predicament can access unemployment benefits, Borns said, “They go back to their abuser.”
Runge said she feels very strongly about the need for government services to victims of abuse.
“If we can bail out big corporations, why can’t we bail out families and victims?” Runge said. “What do we value? We shouldn’t have to scrape little bars of soap for them from hotels.”
DeSilva asked about the effects of domestic violence on children, and Clarke said there are many bad effects.
“There are emotional and mental as well as physical effects,” Clarke said, “but too often people don’t notice it. You really have to pay attention. Aggression is often how it shows. I heard a case where a child as young as 3 years old cut his 1-year-old sister with a razor. Where did he learn that?”
“Seeing or hearing trauma can affect children across their lifetimes,” Borns said. “They may be injured trying to protect their mom. Millions of children are experiencing that. It affects their health. It has a huge impact on them.”
Runge said the problem is being compounded by “the lack of school nurses and social workers in schools. It can’t be just left to teachers and aides, or to a nurse covering multiple schools who comes in just once a week.”
“Children are always left out,” Cancer said. “We have 10,000 students in our district with one nurse covering three or four schools. We have more kids with PTSD than soldiers coming home from combat.”
Warner said there is a need for children’s counselors at the shelters.
PEF retiree Marie Carmelle-Soufrant said it’s important to have services for victims, but “perpetrators are also our sisters and brothers and they need services too.”
Clarke said, “I will often postpone a case until the abuser can receive counseling. I ask them, ‘What did you learn?’ Services are a big thing, but there’s a difference between them hearing and listening.”
Cancer said addiction treatment programs are also available and can help.
24-HR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINES:
• NYS – 800-942-6906 (Click Here For Help)
• Equinox of Albany – 518-432-7865 (Find Us On Facebook)
• Unity House of Troy – 518-272-2370 (Find Us On Facebook)