By Karen Zautyk
Domestic violence. It’s one of those topics all over the news, especially when some high-profile person makes the headlines for smacking around his significant other.
But for so many people, it’s a deep, dark secret. A family secret. A husband wife or parent-child secret. A boyfriend-girlfriend secret. Even an adolescent boyfriend-girlfriend secret.
And it’s not just physical battering: Emotional battery leaves deep, deep scars.
And the victims of domestic violence are not always female. Men are victims, too, although not as likely to come forward.
Not that the women are “likely” either: Data indicate that, on average, it takes between seven and 11 assaults before a battered woman will leave the relationship for good.
We learned that startling statistic from an extraordinary woman, Margaret Abrams, herself a survivor of domestic violence and now the coordinator of Women Rising, a Hudson County-based organization that deals with the plague of domestic violence and helps the victims turn their lives around.
In conjunction with the Kearny Police Department and the Harrison Police Department, Women Rising sponsors Domestic Violence Response Teams (DVRTs), whose volunteers work on a one-to-one basis with the victims.
Sgt. John Manley, coordinator of the Kearny PD program, notes it has been in existence for 12 years, and he’s had “some of the same volunteers on the team since it started.”
But there’s always a need for more. Which is why the KPD and Harrison PD, where Capt. Michael Green is the coordinator, have put out a call for new members.
A press release issued by the PDs notes: “Studies demonstrate that many victims of domestic violence are three times more likely to return to their abusers if they are provided with little or no support.” While police officers deal with the legal aspects of a case, “volunteers help the victim feel less isolated and alone.”
An information session for anyone interested in joining the Kearny or Harrison DVRT is scheduled Thursday, March 14, at 7 p.m. at KPD headquarters, 237 Laurel Ave.
The way the program works is this: When a domestic violence victim is brought to police headquarters, or if she (or he) walks in on her (or his) own to report a problem, they are offered the assistance of the DVRT.
Although, Manley said, a victim “can walk into police headquarters 24-7 and request assistance in a domestic incident,” the local DVRT volunteers are on call during specific times: Monday through Thursday from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. and on weekends from 6 p.m. Friday through 7 a.m. Monday. (At other times, Hudson County Family Court handles DV services.)
One of those vols will answer the request for help and respond to heaquarters, where they will meet on a one-to-one, strictly confidential, basis with the victim. A police officer is stationed outside the room for security, but the cop does not sit in on the meeting.
If the victim wants, she can schedule a follow-up meeting. She will also be given information on all the services provided by Women Rising, including support groups, counseling and shelter. (The organization has scores of services to help victims turn their lives around and then continue to build and strengthen those lives for themselves and their families. For information on the group, visit www.womenrising.org.)
Manley emphasized that the volunteers are not sent to the scene of the domestic-violence incident or to hospitals to meet with victims. “Volunteers are never put in any dangerous situation,” he said.
When meeting with a victim, the role of the DVRT volunteer, Abrams explained, is “to be that listening ear.”
“We need to be empathetic and nonjudgmental,” she added.
“We have to leave ourselves outside that meeting room,” she said.
Domestic violence, Abrams said, can be a learned behavior, with victims often having come from a childhood home where it occurred. “It’s just a norm for them.”
“Empowered women,” she said, “are not attracted to abusive men.”
At the one-on-one meeting, she explained, “We try to descalate the immediate situation. And we let the victim know, ‘It has to be your choice, but here are the resources.’ And then we explain the support system” available to them.
“They may have been isolated for many years,” she noted. “Control” and isolating a victim from friends and family are hallmarks of an abuser’s conduct.
The DVRT can also work on safety planning, i.e. how to escape if an abuser breaks in.
Violations of a restraining order (and that includes phone calls and texts) call for a mandatory arrest of the abuser, but the DVRT volunteers do not push a victim to seek an order. That is entirely up to the victim to decide, and many are just not ready. (See repeat-abuse stats above.)
Abrams said, “The victims know when they finally need to get out of that relationship. We let them know that, when they’re ready, we’ll be there for them.”
A sidelight: Are you aware that New Jersey women did not have the option of obtaining a restraining order against an abuser until 1991? That’s when the state’s Domestic Violence Prevention Act finally went into effect. But, as Abrams pointed out, N.J.’s law is now one of the best in the nation; once issued, a restraining order lasts a lifetime.
In New York, she said, it’s good for only one year.
Abrams noted that Women Rising is also dealing with violent dating relationships between teens. “This wasn’t always talked about,” she said, “but now, with the increased focus on bullying, it is getting more attention.”
Offering a startling statistic, Abrams said, “One in four teens are victims of domestic violence in a dating relationship.”
Her organization has begun holding programs in high schools to address the problem. “We let the students know what is and what isn’t acceptable behavior.”
The unacceptable manifests itself not just in a slap or a punch or verbal assaults, but in “a controlling pattern.” Examples: not wanting their paramour to be involved in sports or extracurricular activities (“if you loved me, you’d spend time with me”) or constant calling or texting. “There are grown women who don’t pick up on that,” Abrams said.
And another increasing problem in the realm of domestic violence: elder abuse. Which is often the most difficult to deal with, since the victim can be completely isolated and lack the ability, or mental faculties, to seek help. Women Rising seeks to help these victims too.
If you are interested in learning more about the Kearny and Harrison DVRTs, be at Kearny PD headquarters at 7 p.m. March 14 to meet with Abrams, Sgt. Manley and Capt. Green who will explain the program. Volunteers must be at least 18, and both males and females are welcome.
If you are accepted as a potential volunteer, be prepared for a rigorous screening and background check, including fingerprinting. Those who are selected to join the team receive several weeks of training, conducted two to three nights per week.
For more information, call Manley at 201-998-1313 or Green at 973-483-4100.