November 2012 Issue
October 26, 2012

Break the silence surrounding domestic violence

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United

Domestic violence happens somewhere in your community. NYSUT members are among those affected by physical, verbal and/or emotional abuse.

"I was in a relationship with a guy who was a ‘pillar of the community.' He taped my phone calls, threatened me, and left physical marks but not in obvious places. He would leave out his hunting knives and guns while threatening me. I left, finally. The state trooper I called helped me a lot and encouraged me to go to a shelter. I was homeless. They helped me get housing. I never returned. He stalked me for almost two years. Domestic violence victims (can be) your sister, your mother, your cousin, your best friend."

— Anonymous NYSUT member

"NYSUT must work to break the silence about domestic violence," said NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler, "not only because the union stands up for the oppressed, but also because domestic violence impacts the students we teach and our own members."

Ani Shahinian, a specialist with NYSUT Social Services, recommends that if anyone suspects a relative or friend is being hurt, they might quietly and carefully pass along phone numbers and names of organizations that can help them set up a safety plan for when they are ready to leave.

Fear hinders victims from calling for help, said Shahinian, whose office provides support and resources to NYSUT members. They are usually controlled by the abuser, both in their actions and in their access to funds. Victims are often "extremely devalued, vulnerable to mental illness and depression, and at high risk for isolation," she said.

"Don't push them to leave or they might stop talking to you," Shahinian said. "It is a delicate balance for their safety."

Perpetrators often exhibit a high rate of alcohol and drug abuse, "which adds to their unpredictability," she said. "The average number of times people try to leave before they permanently do is seven."

Children in a violent home can struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, obesity or depression. Girls who witness domestic violence have a higher rate of finding partners later in life who are violent toward them, Shahinian said. Boys sometimes wet their beds and have nightmares, and often grow up to become perpetrators of violence.

NYSUT supports the Violence Against Women Act, which strengthens law enforcement and prosecution. Now up for reauthorization, a House and Senate conference committee is planned to discuss different versions of the bill.

"I was 18 when it started. His attacks came when he was in a drunken blackout. He'd insist it wasn't really ‘him.' I didn't report it to the police because I was confused and ashamed. I was thrown down stairs, punched, kicked. I finally left when I found out I could get an apartment partially subsidized by the government. Although I had a job, I didn't make enough to support myself and my infant — this program saved our lives. Counseling helped me, though I still have some PTSD. Now, I speak."

— Anonymous NYSUT member

NYSUT also advocates for the Violence Against Women Health Initiative Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport. The grant program would strengthen the response of state and local health care systems to domestic violence abuse, sexual assault and stalking. It would also provide training on those issues to health care professionals.

"‘I love you so much that I want you all to myself' sounds good, until you realize that you are being separated from all those who you love, so that you can be manipulated. Counseling does help you get stronger ... but it's hard to remain strong when there is a batterer at home. My precious friend's family invited my daughter and me to live with them so we could stay safe. They babysat so I could get medical care and counseling. They saved our lives."

— Anonymous union member

Additonally, Cutler said, many NYSUT locals, along with NYSUT staff, support United Way, which helps fund many domestic violence outreach programs.

One example is in western New York. The Kathleen Mary House serves as a transitional home for victims. U.S. Rep. Kathy Hochul, D-Amherst, founded the home with her mother and aunt. It provides parenting classes, computer training, and the emotional and spiritual assistance survivors need.