To all victims of domestic abuse, know there are people out there READY TO HELP NOW

The Coronavirus has brought us so many unexpected challenges. Whether it’s being in isolation for long periods of time or social distancing, we’ve learned a lot of new terms and concepts we probably never even dreamed of before 2020. But there is something troubling in our “new” world that still exists — and that in many ways has gotten more complex — domestic violence.

Two experts who work with those affected by domestic violence spoke with The Observer’s Lisa Feorenzo last week and offered evidence that the pandemic has, indeed, made domestic issues worse, whether it’s from being cooped up in the house with family members or the inability for victims to let anyone know they’re in danger.

The concept for this story came about when Linsey C. Short, director of development for the Center for Hope and Safety, of Rochelle Park, sent an Op-Ed to this newspaper that was written Julye Myner, the center’s executive director. The Center for Hope and Safety is Bergen County’s sanctioned center for offering help to that county’s domestic violence victims.

Feorenzo thought it would be wise to pull together Short and Myner for a Zoom call along with Women Rising, of Jersey City, Hudson County’s version of Center for Hope. And so, Joaneileen Coughlan, Rising’s director of domestic violence services, agreed to join the call last week. Yours truly was also on the call.

What we learned was nothing short of fascinating. And if this information helps one victim, it’s done its job properly.

This is a topic near and dear to Feorenzo’s heart because she, herself, was a victim of domestic violence. Much of what she experienced was verbal in nature. Later in this story, you’ll read of her own experiences.

The conversation began with a discussion about whether victims of domestic violence have found it easier to be open about their situations using technology instead of visiting one of the two aforementioned centers in Hudson and Bergen counties.

“It depends,” Coughlan said. “I have a feeling that victims think they’re bothering us. So I think everything’s more concise. But I also think because they’re self-isolated under this quarantine that they don’t have a choice, but it’s more about safety, worrying about if they’re still living in this situation. If someone’s going to come to the door or the kids are going to be there … so it’s kind of two-fold.”

Still, Coughlan believes the victims are still “grateful” they have the opportunity to “connect in this way.”

Working together

The two organizations, Women Rising and the Center for Hope, work with each other when needed. Coughlan noted there are times when a victim from Hudson County may have to leave there for Bergen County. When this happens, a case would be transferred to the Center for Hope because each one handles county-specific cases. This is particularly important so victims are aware of the need for dealing with the other organization and so they’re fully aware they won’t be left alone if a change of county is needed.

The same is true if a victim must leave for another county elsewhere in Jersey. Each has its own state-mandated organization with differing names.

“Each county has state-funded core services which includes a safe house or emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence,” Myner said. “That’s how we know each other — through that coalition. It’s called the NJ Coalition to End Domestic Violence.”

Reported cases are dropping? How is that possible?

One of the concerns we had is whether the two organizations have seen an increase in domestic-violence cases, perhaps brought on the stay-at-home order. Myner says no, but don’t let notion fool you.

“Unfortunately not,” she said. “Attorney General (Gurbir S.) Grewal, last week, did a briefing during a webinar. He was quite concerned for the past month that there’s been a 50% decrease from the past year in domestic-violence reports as well as domestic-violence arrests. We understand that when there’s stressful times like these, that domestic violence does increase and can go on for up to two years.”

Because of this notion, Myner says there is no doubt in her mind there is an increase in abused women, men and children, but the ability for them to report the incidents becomes a huge challenge when the abuser is constantly in the home.

She says victims — no matter when the abuse is happening — often don’t realize help is available for them.

“We really feel the call to action (at times like these) to spread the word,” Myner said. “We’re grateful you’re willing to partner to let the victims know that we are here throughout the state and we really want them to reach out for help — they don’t have to stay in an abusive home right now.”

“And we’ve seen this before, around Hurricane Sandy,” Coughlan said. “It’s the same situation, meaning that because there’s a bigger issue … where victims are living … they have to deal with that first.”

Coughlan says because victims of abuse are, in many cases, still living with their batterers, they feel they can’t leave. But, she says, they can and should.

“And in the next weeks, months and years, we’re going to see the effect of this,” Coughlan said. “We’ll have a surge of victims coming forward.”

What about when the victim relies on the batterer for money?

Fortunately there is a system in place for victims who financially rely on their abuser. Both organizations help to pay for housing, clothing and all the basic necessities to ensure comfort. The system is designed for long-term success outside an abusive relationship for the victims and their children.

First, they’re taught how to become economically strong while living in transitional housing. Then, they’re set up for success in the outside world, in independent living situations. Myner says victims often suffer lost wages because of the situations they’re in, so places like Center for Hope and Women Rising help them with economic support, “so they don’t step back into a sense of helplessness or hopelessness, or even back into an abusive relationship …” she said.

Going to court and to the police

Here is where Feorenzo’s own experiences came into play. In her situation, she says she wasn’t prepared for what she would face both at the police station filing a report and applying for a temporary order of restraint and when she wound up going to court for the first time.

What she learned was that a judge believed there was a specific incident that occurred on the day she filed with police. In her case, there were incidents that occurred over a much longer stretch, where she received emails, packages, notes, etc.

Fortunately for her, she was prepared with dates of most of the incidents. Not all victims are, however.

“I had said to the judge, ‘I’m sorry, but there is more to it,’” Feorenzo said. “I had everything in a box. And I kept notes. But I am very strong-minded and am blessed to have that. But I think it’s very important to convince victims how they have to keep proper notes and when they do go to the police station, that there’s a proper way for this to be done.”

To assist with cases like Lisa’s, Myner says Center for Hope was able to hire a legal team to assist victims a few years back. They’ve got three full-time attorneys and two legal administrators on staff.

“And so when a client comes in and they need support for filing a restraining order, we go with them to the police station and court and we make sure they include all the details they have.”

Myner says looking back to when Center for Hope didn’t have legal services readily available, she’s been able to see the tremendous impact it’s had, positively, for the victims. It’s critical, she says, for victims to know they have the legal support from start to finish, from going to a police station to start the process to a courtroom.

As such, there are now attorneys, statewide, who are available for all victims as needed. Some are pro-bono. Some are though Legal Aid. Some are staffers.

“Still, no matter how much you are prepared, you can never tell what a judge is going to do,” Coughlan said.

I need help, what do I do next?

The two organizations suggest you find a way to follow these instructions below and do so as quickly as you can.

If you’re in Hudson County, visit www.womenrising.org or call (201) 333-5700. In Bergen County, visit www.hopeandsafetynj.org or call (201) 944-9600. Both phone lines are operations 24/7, every day of every year. Help will be waiting for you on the other end.

Myner suggests whenever possible, the victim should first leave the home physically, to whatever extent it is safe to do so, and then make the call. If possible, someone from the organization will come to help remove the victim and/or children from the abusive home.

Perhaps most stunningly, she also says a victim will leave an abusive situation seven times before finally leaving for good. This is in good times and bad times for the rest of the world. So it is vitally important for victims to know that not only is there help, but the organizations will do everything in their power to keep victims away from their abuser forever and safely.

Funding from other sources

While the state funds both Women Rising and the Center for Hope, it’s never enough. Both organizations fundraise. And because of COVID-19, those events, that often take place in the warmer months, have had to be canceled. If you wish to help, visit each’s website to learn about you can donate, whether it’s time, talent or treasure.

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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.