Nationwide, one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. Twenty-three women have been killed by intimate partners in Orange County since 2004; one woman is still missing.
These were the sobering statistics presented at a Safe Homes of Orange County event at the Neighborhood Business and Resource Center on Monday. The gathering kicked off the Domestic Violence Awareness Month of October. “Domestic violence happens everywhere,” said New York State Assemblyman James Skoufis, speaking that day.
He was joined by county and state officials to talk frankly about domestic violence and its effects on communities. “This is tough work,” said Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus, praising Safe Homes, the county’s only full, domestic-violence services provider in the county. “You’re not writing Hallmark cards here.”
Safe Homes provides domestic-violence services, education and prevention training, a 24-hour crisis hotline and access to an emergency shelter. In 2016, the agency answered 3,334 hotline calls and provided 17,414 victim-advocacy services. Safe Homes also provides services related to teen-dating violence and human trafficking.
Each year, the agency sponsors The Clothesline Project, displaying T-shirts dedicated to victims of domestic violence. The name Petra Muhammad was emblazoned on one of the T-shirts hanging on display at the resource center on Monday.
Muhammad, who went missing from her Highland Falls home in 2006, is presumed dead. But, says Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler, she is not forgotten. “We have not stopped looking for her,” he said.
Another T-shirt read, “My friend is dead at 20.” The T-shirt was made by a friend of Alexis Harris, beaten to death by her boyfriend on July 21, 2012. “She would have been 25 in March,” said her mother Anne Harris. “She’s never going to grow up.”
In order to cope with the loss of her daughter, Harris joined a local chapter of Bereaved Parents of the USA. Harris is also vice president of the county chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It helps me to help other people,” she said.
Harris pointed to the fact that mental illness and domestic violence can go hand-in-hand. According to county Social Services Commissioner Darcie Miller, children exposed to domestic violence “will not have the same opportunities, statistically, because of what’s been done to their mental wellness.”
Miller cited the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study, which states, “Children who experience abuse and neglect are also at increased risk for adverse health effects and certain chronic diseases as adults, including heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, liver disease, obesity, high-blood pressure, high cholesterol and high levels of C-reactive protein.”
“The work that we do is not only for those who are experiencing it today – getting out and getting safe – but with a hope for our children and for them to be able to have an opportunity… to be all that they can be,” said Miller.
Studies have been done in cities around the county that provide hard data on domestic abuse, said Hoovler. “There is a method to who abuses, why they abuse and if they’re going to be a recidivist,” the district attorney said. “We just need to spend the time, money and effort to target them.”
The lack of funding to support domestic-violence services is “shocking,” said Hoovler. “It really is a shame that the state doesn’t put money where their mouth is,” he said.
Two years ago, when the state cut funding for Safe Homes, the county stepped in and filled the gap, said Safe Homes Executive Director Kellyann Kostyal-Larrier. “It would have been catastrophic,” she said. “Not only were we able to (continue) the program, but we expanded.”
Tiffanie Downs of state Sen. John Bonacic’s office later noted the senator was able to secure $50,000 for Safe Homes in fiscal year 2017-2018.
Skoufis also spoke about a bill in the New York Legislature that would prevent convicted domestic abusers from owning guns. The legislation was blocked by Republicans in the state Senate last year. “It’s appalling,” said Skoufis. “We have a lot more work to do. In the meantime, we look to groups like Safe Homes to fill the void and protect people.”
The Clothesline Project will be on exhibit at Veterans Square Park in Port Jervis on Oct. 5, the Galleria at Crystal Run in Middletown on Oct. 9 and Cornerstone Family Health in Newburgh on Oct. 11.
To reach Safe Homes’ 24-hour crisis hotline, call 845-562-5340. To learn more about Safe Homes of Orange County, go to safehomesorangecounty.org.
By SHANTAL RILEY