By Alice E. Gerard
Domestic violence is a crime that "is all about power and control," said Mary Travers Murphy, executive director of the Family Justice Center, speaking at the FJC's annual fundraising breakfast on June 8. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, "domestic violence is an epidemic affecting individuals in every community, regardless of age, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion or nationality." One of those communities is Grand Island.
Murphy said, "We opened our third satellite office in a temporary space on Grand Island," at 1801 Grand Island Blvd. "We have two rooms in their office, while we raise money to build an addition on the complex."
At the breakfast, Island resident Laura Mason told her story of abuse at the hands of her former husband. "It was 2 a.m., when the door opened to the house. Why am I not surprised, he yelled, as the refrigerator door slammed. I crept downstairs to the kitchen. As usual, he was intoxicated. I should have known better, but I did it anyway. I asked him where he had been and to please quiet down because I had just gotten the baby down to sleep."
Mason recounted how an argument over cheese became a physical assault. "I was on the ground, getting my hair pulled and getting punched in my stomach. He kicked my head with his steel-toed work boots. This was the first time that I actually felt that I could die." When she was able to get away from the attack, she called the police, and her husband was arrested. She said, "I thought that, if only I'd stayed upstairs, none of this would have happened." When she went to court, she said that she recognized people who were there and that the judge was a "close family friend."
"My husband was brought in handcuffs, wearing an orange jumpsuit. I stood there, embarrassed, mortified and ashamed. I left court that evening with a restraining order. My abuser was mandated to anger management classes. That's it? I went through all of that embarrassment for a lousy piece of paper that stated that he couldn't come near me or my children."
According to statistics cited at the breakfast, the average domestic violence victim goes back to the abusive relationship seven times before leaving permanently. Mason was no exception. She returned to her husband.
"Domestic violence continued to permeate my daily existence, and it became my norm," she said. "I could go on and on about what my life was like with my abuser. I have no lack of material for this speech. However, this isn't about my abuser; it's about me, and it's for the victims who are still caught in the cycle and for the victims that never made it out. I reflect on that time in my life. I was ashamed. I felt as though I deserved it. I asked myself, over and over, why did you stay? I have no answer. I wish that I did. What I do know is that I never thought that I would be that woman, a woman who isolated herself from family, friends and colleagues. I lost self-confidence, becoming more weak and depressed with every passing day. I was suicidal, and I felt like a terrible mother. I cared way too much about what others thought, which paralyzed me from leaving again."
Mason said that she lived with her abuser for eight more years. "I realized that I couldn't continue this secret life. I had to do something. I started with Al-Anon. It's anonymous, and I wouldn't know anyone. I felt comfort here as I worked the steps and became healthier in my own life. But the abuse became worse. It was then that I realized that it wasn't me. It was him. Interesting revelation, right? I had to be sure that I wasn't to blame. Eventually, I left my abuser."
If there had been a Family Justice Center in Grand Island when Mason was experiencing her abuse, she said that she would have made different choices. She described the Family Justice Center as offering "services that included privacy, safety and child care provided in one safe environment with loving care and professionalism."
"I would know that I wouldn't have to endure the public humiliation of the system. I would not have been made to feel that this was an anger management issue and feel hopeful that my abuser, having gone through those anger management classes, would have made a positive change. I may not have felt responsible. I may not have gone back," Mason said.
Mason, a nurse practitioner in neurosurgery and an adjunct professor at D'Youville College, said that she has now been in a loving relationship for 12 years. She is also an advocate for the Family Justice Center. "This is why I share my story, hoping that my story will remove the stigma and stereotype of domestic violence. It can happen anywhere. We, as a society, need to make a paradigm shift, asking the question, 'Why do they hit?' instead of 'Why do they stay?' We need to stop blaming the victim."
Tosca Miserendino, who wrote and directed a short film presented at the breakfast that depicted a domestic violence victim repeatedly opening doors to her abuser before finally leaving and seeking help, said, "When a domestic violence survivor opens that door (to the Family Justice Center) and takes that step, it can change the outcome and the trajectory for that survivor's life and for their family and for their children. And that's especially important because that's where the cycle of violence ends for children."
Nadia Shahram, member of the Family Justice Center board of directors, said, "We have the ability to help these victims escape domestic violence. We are blessed to have that ability. Today, Laura has spoken her truth, not just for her, but for former victims and every survivor who shares the stories of abuse. We hope to open a door of hope for others who do not have a plan in place to escape their abuser."
Mason added, "You can help (the Family Justice Center) by volunteering or you can help by contributing financially. Help us build a new center on Grand Island. Help by changing one community at a time. Today, it is my community. Tomorrow, it could be yours. Help those who live with domestic violence become victors and not victims so that, like me, they can say that I am a victor."
The Grand Island satellite of the Family Justice Center is currently open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. The phone number is 716-507-0764.