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Laura Mason inside the FJC Satellite. (Photo by Michael J. Billoni)
Laura Mason inside the FJC Satellite. (Photo by Michael J. Billoni)

Family Justice Center to open satellite center June 12 on Trinity Church Campus

Fri, Apr 23rd 2021 11:00 am

Islander Laura Mason tells her heart-wrenching story of domestic violence

By Michael J. Billoni

Part I of III

Laura Mason, a petite woman who barely weighs 115 pounds, was sprawled on her kitchen floor at 2:30 a.m. while her burly, 185-pound drunken husband, a U.S. Army veteran, was pulling her hair and punching her hard in the stomach. When he savagely kicked her in the head with his steel-toed work boots, the lifelong Grand Islander – for the first time in this abusive marriage – seriously thought she was going to die.

“I began flailing my arms in the air searching desperately for a way to get him to stop. Eventually I found his ‘sweet spot’ that brought him to his knees and gave me enough time to get up and call 911, as I feared for my life,” Mason quietly explains while seated in a comfortable chair in the family room of the Grand Island home she shares with her significant other, John Tommasulo. Her children are Alexandra, 29; and Christian, 23. Petting Lucy, her cat, she continues: “When the Erie County Sheriff’s deputies arrived, I knew all of them and I was immediately embarrassed and regretted making the call.”

Her husband, whom she finally divorced in 2005 after a 10-year marriage and four-year courtship, was handcuffed and placed in the sheriff’s vehicle. One of the deputies asked if she wanted him to notify her father, a former Niagara Falls and Grand Island police officer.

“I replied with a firm ‘No.’ I was embarrassed and ashamed of myself and my father,” she continues. “Then I began to think, ‘If only I had stayed upstairs, none of this would have happened.’ ”

This occurred in 1998, and the abuser was her second husband. Moments before he arrived home, Mason was able to finally relax after putting their colicky baby boy down to sleep. She was a nurse, had just worked another long day, and was exhausted. Her husband’s home-based business had fallen on tough financial times and he was spending his evenings out drinking with friends.

“Why am I not surprised!” she recalls him yelling, as the refrigerator door slammed. Mason crept downstairs to the kitchen and 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 as I had just put Christian down to sleep and I was exhausted,” she explains in a hushed tone as her eyes moisten.

“How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t like that kind of cheese,” she recalled him screaming angrily.

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” she says as she opens the refrigerator, pulls out the cheese and waves it in his face. “This is American cheese.”

“No, you dumb ass, it is not,” he screams with a grin on his face.

“I wanted to smack that grin right off his face,” she says. “ ‘I don’t understand what the difference is, and please let’s not discuss this now. You are drunk.’ ”

He persisted mumbling under his breath so as to be antagonizing and condescending.

“Please be quiet!” Mason pleads through gritted teeth.

More words were exchanged, and one thing led to another before he attacked her.

Family Justice Center, Erie County Sheriff’s See Increase in Calls

Mary Travers Murphy, president and CEO of the Family Justice Center for the past 12 years, calls domestic violence “a public health crisis” in Erie County and says Mason’s story is one she hears way too often.

“The definition of the abuse we are talking about is control,” the past television consumer affairs reporter and former Town of Orchard Park supervisor explains. “The control these victims are under involves talented control freaks working out of the same handbook, and one of their most effective tools is to convince the victim they are causing the problem and are responsible for it. That is not true, but these victims are brainwashed to believe it.

“One in three women and girls in the 10-12 and 24-26-year-old age group and one in seven boys and men are victims.

“This is all about control and, long before these relationships turn physical, there is the breakdown of psychological, emotional, verbal, financial, sexual and social media abuse that can go on for years before it becomes physical and sometimes deadly. The abusers will do and say anything to maintain that power and control, including threats of killing the victims or the children if they leave or say anything to anyone.”

When Murphy began, FJC had one downtown location where victims could visit and advocates would introduce them to a variety of services available with experts ready to help them in strict confidentiality. She encourages victims of abuse (or if someone knows of a victim) to call the FJC hotline at 716-558-SAFE (7233). For more information, visit www.fjcsafe.org.

The FJC’s greatest asset is assisting a victim with the long, oftentimes painful task of obtaining a restraining order from court.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, FJC has been offering all of its services remotely since March 18, 2020, and Murphy says the calls to its hotline have been staggering. FJC has experienced a 74% increase in domestic violence hotline calls since it went remote. It saw an increase of 1,000 new and returning clients in 2020 – from 3,094 to 4,362 – according to Murphy. A majority of the client calls are considered high-lethality risk, which she says is unprecedented in the agency’s history. A high percentage of the calls are minority and low-income clients, but she points out with authority that domestic violence knows no boundaries, and they are dealing with clients from all communities in Western New York.

Another startling statistic from 2020: The Family Justice Center’s forensic medical unit nurse worked with 215 victims. Of those, 102 were for strangulations and 61 were head or traumatic brain injuries. This past January, the nurse saw 16 clients, including 14 for strangulations.

Murphy said the FMU nurse is working with the Strangulation Institute Alliance, which is helping states implement a bench card for judges: “12 Things Every Judge Should Know When Faced with Non-Fatal Strangulation.”

“This will be another tool in the toolbox of our FJC advocates and our FMU nurse in helping victims seeking justice, safety, safe havens and hope from domestic violence,” Murphy explains during an interview with the Island Dispatch from her home office in Orchard Park.

The Erie County Sheriff’s Office has had a domestic violence unit for the past 20 years. Police Services Chief Scott Joslyn, who oversees the unit of certified civilians serving as domestic violence advocates, was the unit’s chief for 10 years. He works closely with the district attorney’s office and its domestic violence unit. Domestic Violence Advocate Joseph G. Chudoba works out of a satellite office on the second floor of Grand Island Town Hall.

Although they work closely with Murphy and the FJC, the difference is the advocate’s office follows up on all 911 calls for domestic violence or the appearance of it, from mandatory reports deputies have to complete. Chudoba also has observed an increase in strangulation cases and said the advocates recently completed training in that area.

“The benefit of the Family Justice Center is that no police are involved when someone calls them,” Joslyn says. “Once 911 is called and a deputy arrives, it is sometimes difficult for the victim to press charges, because they are oftentimes seeing the family’s breadwinner being taken away in cuffs. That is why our advocates are not officers and are on call 24/7. They are in civilian clothing and they help the victims get through these challenging times and we have a great record of success.”

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn, a strong advocate of combating domestic violence, said, “Domestic violence is a silent epidemic that thrives in secrecy when victims are either afraid to come forward or are unable to come forward to escape their abuser. It is important to have resources throughout our community available to help victims everywhere. My office and our BE-SAFE Victim Advocacy Program, along with law enforcement and partner agencies like the Family Justice Center, will continue to be a resource for all victims of domestic violence. While it is important that offenders are prosecuted for their crimes, it is imperative that advocacy, counseling and other services are also provided to the victims.

“I congratulate the Family Justice Center on the upcoming opening of its new satellite office on Grand Island and we commend its organization for the services that they provide to survivors of domestic violence,” the district attorney says.

The FJC has expanded to satellite locations in Orchard Park and Amherst.

At 10 a.m. Saturday, June 12, a ceremony will be held inside Trinity Church United Methodist on Whitehaven Road before guests will walk across the campus to the church’s parsonage it now owns at 2074 Whitehaven Road for a ribbon-cutting of its third satellite location.

These locations have services that are also provided downtown. None of the locations have rooms for victims to stay overnight. However, if those services are needed, FJC has agencies to contact.

That opening will mark the end of a long, arduous journey for Murphy, Mason and Grand Island’s Dr. Karen Panzarella, PT, Ph.D., CHSE (who also is a domestic violence survivor), and countless others who believe these services are vital on Grand Island. While it was looking for a permanent home on Grand Island, the FJC opened a temporary satellite office on June 4, 2018, co-located in a medical park at 1801 Grand Island Blvd.

Laura Mason’s Embarrassment in Town Court

Following the deputy’s direction, later in the morning of her husband’s arrest, Mason called her father-in-law in Rochester to pick up their 5-month-old son and nearly 5-year-old daughter, because she had to go to the hospital for an examination from his son’s beating. Her husband was now in the Erie County Holding Center.

“To be honest, his father did not really say much of anything when he picked up the kids,” explains Mason, who then had to go to the Sheriff’s Office on Whitehaven Road to complete the report and have photos taken of her bruises.

“I was really numb to any feelings at that point. I was just going through the motions,” she adds.

The next evening, Mason entered Town Hall, climbed the stairs and walked into the crowded courtroom.

“It was a very public forum and as I looked around, I knew several of the people there waiting to be seen by the judge for their parking violations and speeding tickets,” she said. “I felt myself shrink as I was trying to be inconspicuous. I felt so alone and ashamed when, suddenly, a friend approached, asking why I was there. I stuttered and just could not answer him. At that moment, Judge Sybil Kennedy took the bench and my heart sank even more. She was a close family friend and I had even graduated from Grand Island High School with her son.”

Almost simultaneously, her abuser was being escorted by Town Police into court in handcuffs and wearing an orange jumpsuit.

“I just stood there embarrassed, mortified, and ashamed,” Mason explains. She had not seen the judge in years and suddenly she was within 6 inches of her at the front of the courtroom. “So, with the lawyers and the judge, we are discussing options and what the future holds. And I’m feeling guilt and feeling sad. I’m feeling shame and feeling like I caused all of this. ‘Why did I call the police? Why did I do this?’ So, in the end, all he got was anger management classes, because that is what I agreed to, believing this was an anger issue and not a domestic violence issue.”

“I never thought in a million years that I would be labeled as a domestic violence victim,” she says with great remorse. “I felt as if I was just in a really bad marriage.”’

The judge reviewed the case and issued a restraining order against her husband, ordered the police to escort him to the home the following day to pick up some belongings, and mandated he take anger management classes.

“ ‘That’s it?’ ” Mason recalls thinking later that evening. “I went through all that embarrassment for a lousy piece of paper that says he couldn’t come near me or my children?”

During the separation, Mason took advantage of peaceful surroundings at home with her children to return to college for her bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s degree in science at Daemen College, which she completed in 18 months. She took a job, which she holds today, as a nurse practitioner to Dr. Elad Levy at University at Buffalo Neurosurgery in Williamsville.

Like many domestic violence victims, Mason reunited with her former husband later after 9-11 rocked the world in 2001 and brought a sense of patriotism and togetherness to America. During the separation, he had visitation rights with the children, and there were no problems. Mason says it appeared he did well with anger management, so she had the restraining order removed.

While she had hoped for the best, it was not long before he used his anger management training to turn the tables on her.

“It just became super-controlling to the point that he hated that I was so independent, intelligent and attractive. He kept tabs on me all day by calling me at work, harassing me about where I have been, etc.,” Mason says with disgust.

“As a result, I lived with domestic violence for several more years. It started insidious in onset, like a malignant cancer metastasizing in me until it infected every part of my soul and well-being. He turned me from an easy-going, loving, confident woman, to being unrecognizable. The emotional and psychological abuse was constant,” explains Mason, who said one time she was so upset she drove to New York City to stay with her sister who “hated him with a passion.”

She eventually divorced her husband in 2005, but not before another physical incident where a punch to her face caused a noticeable black eye days before her mother-in-law’s birthday party in Rochester. He was too embarrassed to go, but she drove with her children and spent the time talking with her sisters-in-law about the behavior of her soon-to-be ex-husband.

The final straw was when Mason was out of town on a business trip and she received a call from her daughter saying her husband hit her son. She immediately called her father to pick up the kids and keep them until she returned from the conference she was attending.

“I was a woman I did not know anymore,” she explains with tears forming as she relives her past horrors. “Living with this abuse changed everything about me: My decision-making, my values, my family interactions or lack thereof, my interactions with my children, and my career. I found comfort in Al-Anon, which I attended because he was an alcoholic. And as I worked steps, I became healthier in my own life and faith. I finally realized it was not my fault. I was not the one to blame for all this and, when I felt comfortable with that, I left him.”

Next week: Family Justice Center Comes to Grand Island

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