April 21, 2020

Local union leaders raise funds to support domestic violence prevention

Author: Liza Frenette
domestic violence awareness ribbons

Knowing that in some families, sheltering in place can mean an escalation of violence in the home, a trio of NYSUT leaders banded together to donate $2,000 to Unity House of Troy to help victims of domestic violence.

“The need is huge,” reports a director at Unity House, which is part of a statewide network of shelters that provide safe spaces for domestic violence survivors and families throughout New York.

“It’s a pressure cooker moment and can exacerbate societal problems,” said Mike Lillis, physics teacher and president of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers in Westchester County who helped organize the donation along with Beth Chetney, president of the Baldwinsville Teachers Association, and Kevin Coyne, president of the Brentwood TA.

Responding to urgent need in communities is a hallmark of educator and union activism. The pandemic has created crises in many homes and for many different reasons. Extended periods of isolating at home, loss of routine for both children and adults, the financial pressure of lost income or shattered businesses, food insecurity, alcoholism or addiction, and daily fear of getting or being sick from COVID-19 all ratchet up emotional and mental strain.

Some people respond with violence.

In Westchester County, two murder-suicide attacks in less than two weeks left two couples and a 12-year-old girl dead.

Domestic violence, Lillis said, “cuts across socio-economics.” He said he has taught students in the past who felt unsafe at home.

“One of the things you experience as a teacher is a sense of what goes on in people’s lives,” he said.

“We hear about our families at home struggling to get along and stay safe,” said Chetney.

National Hotline for Domestic Violence

800-799-SAFE (7233)

The hotline is available 24 hours a day. You can also talk online, or get further information, at thehotline.org. Find information on a path to safety, or how to help a family member or friend who is being abused.

She said teachers feel concern for students and their families, and also for colleagues who may be experiencing fear and a lack of safety in their own home situations.

“There are so many layers to it,” said Chetney, noting that educators in her local union have reached out to school psychologists and social workers for help during this prolonged period of sweeping change.

“Our regular school employees are doing double duty helping colleagues,” she said. Chetney, who is also a teacher-member on the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System board, encourages school employees to use their Employee Assistance Program for help, and to contact the school’s own mental health professionals — psychologists, social workers and counselors.

NYSUT also has a Social Services unit to help direct members and their families to assistance. It can be reached at 518-732-6239.

The funds given to Unity House in Troy help victims of domestic violence through its work as a not-for-profit human services agency.

The donation, said Coyne, will help to deal with “ the socio-emotional toll of being quarantined.”

New York State Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline

For the hotline number of your local domestic violence program, call the NYS Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline at 1-800-942-6906, English & Española/Multi-language Accessibility. Deaf or Hard of Hearing: 711 In NYC: 1-800-621-HOPE (4673) or dial 311 TDD: 1-800-810-7444

For a listing of domestic violence hotlines by county, visit the New York State Domestic Violence Directory

Nationwide, there have been reports of increases in violence, addiction use and overdose, and family poverty during this time of pandemic.

“Our shelter has overflowed already,” said Diane Cameron, Unity House director of development and grants. “We’re in hotels.” Unity House handles a maximum capacity of 100 people in various locations. The not-for-profit also has a food pantry and daycare services, and staff work with police to do home spot checks.

The different locals collaborating on the donation turned to NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango, who chairs the statewide Women’s Committee, for suggestions on where to donate the money. The committee meets annually and addresses issues such as domestic violence, women’s health, human trafficking, and women’s rights in educational workshops.

“When we first started the work, that topic was part of our initial convening,” DiBrango said. “Domestic violence was a key issue at NYSUT’s first women’s conference.”

About Unity House

Unity House is a human services agency assisting people living in poverty, adults with mental illness, people with HIV/AIDS, domestic violence victims and children with developmental delays.