EDITOR’S NOTE: This article contains description of child abuse, sexual assault and human trafficking. This story is the final part of a four-part series.
While this project is meant to be a resource for those affected by abuse and violence, the various coordinated community initiatives from the Victims Assistance Center should be recognized by victims’ service and law enforcement agencies as models for effective response and prevention of crime.
Victims Assistance Center hotline can be reached at 315-782-1855, and the National Human Trafficking hotline can be reached at 1-888-373-7888.
WATERTOWN — In the early months of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it was unclear how it would affect human services and the populations they aid as everyone faced new challenges.
Not exempt from the unfamiliar circumstances, Jill Parker, executive director of the Victims Assistance Center, believes her team’s long-standing devotion has empowered them to continually meet the complex and growing needs of the tri-county communities — even before coronavirus.
Cases of child abuse reported to the VAC have steadily climbed since 2015, and while easily alarming, Jill finds hope in the growing numbers meaning that people are reaching out for help.
“If you want to change society, you’ve got to hit the subjects head-on,” she said.
Since Jill took the helm six years ago, she’s found that as a provider of services, it can be easy to assume what the client needs, but she says it’s the agency’s responsibility to listen to their clients and meet them where their needs are. Over the years, this philosophy has guided the VAC as they’ve recognized pitfalls and found solutions for more effective crisis response, intervention and prevention.
“You have to figure it out as you go, which you aren’t mentally capable of doing and you shouldn’t have to,” said Michelle Littler, activist and survivor of domestic violence. “All the services that could get you at least expedited faster in healing — you don’t know where to go.”
Dating back to 1999, the Immediate Response Team was formed when it became clear that victims had a better chance of not only escape but survival if they had access to emergency shelter and knowledge of services at the time of the domestic incident.
“I think there would just be less of a chance that you’re going to fall through the cracks,” Michelle said.
As the exclusive provider of certified emergency shelter in Jefferson County, the VAC’s 20-bed facility, called Safe Shelter, at an undisclosed location in Watertown, squashes assumptions of what refuge during crisis can often look like, according to shelter director, Amy Contryman.
Amy keeps the doors open to survivors in the north country, securely and with a curfew, of course, but says a client’s stay in the shelter is meant to be a stepping stone to get them back on their feet and lower the possibility of a return to abuse.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, it takes a victim an average of seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship before they leave for good.
Even though she started the shelter’s Giving Room where clients can get much needed personal and household items before moving on to a new life, Amy says the VAC’s services never stop once a survivor walks out the door.
Inspired by her own advocate when leaving her abusive marriage, Erica Monaco, a domestic violence survivor, has used her experiences to forge a career in social work — fueled by potential to improve the systems she felt failed her.
Erica wants to see law enforcement agencies better prioritize the needs of victims and believes that having social workers assigned to police stations and precincts could pave the way for more trauma-informed practices in the field.
“If a victim comes forward, and they finally are saying, ‘I need help,’ and everybody is sweeping it under the rug, they’re gonna end up dead,” Erica said. “This has fatal consequences.”
To consolidate efforts between agencies and reduce potential trauma for victims, the VAC uses a multidisciplinary team model involving law enforcement, child protective services and district attorneys for cases they handle.
Megan Lasala, a forensic interviewer at the VAC’s child advocacy office in Canton, works day in and day out with children who report abuse. Although she admits inter-agency collaboration isn’t always smooth sailing in rural areas, she has found that barriers between survivors and their chances for healing are often rooted in an unaccepting culture.
She says that because things like domestic violence, sexual assault and abuse haven’t been widely discussed over the years, there is a lot of misunderstanding around what these offenses can actually look like, especially when denial runs deep through small communities.
While the VAC prioritizes its service of victims today, Megan believes the best way to prevent crime moving forward is to widely offer training and education to the public, shining light in the dark corners of the tri-county region.
“You wouldn’t believe how much you would learn,” mother of a trafficking victim and activist, Victoria Recor said. “It was eye opening to me, the inhumanity of that dark world that no parent wants to ever have to face.”
She says she was blindsided by her own lack of information when her daughter, Haley, was trapped in sex trafficking in upstate New York in 2016 — an ongoing reality she has dedicated her life to warning others about.
On the ground in her own community, Victoria says she is constantly met with disbelief that human trafficking even exists in the north country and says it stings that much more when people who do acknowledge it choose to turn a blind eye.
“There’s families that wanna support, but they don’t know where to start or how to have the conversation,” VAC’s JCC campus advocate, Destiny Walker said. “‘Am I gonna say something wrong? So, I’m not gonna say anything at all.’”
Though she believes Jefferson County and Watertown have come a long way in the service and treatment of survivors over the years, Destiny thinks there are still great strides to be made in fostering compassion and understanding for victims.
“It’s us,” she said. “It’s you. It’s me. We can unite and we can make things better.”
Part 3: Increase in sex trafficking spurs action to aid victims
WATERTOWN — When Victoria Recor opened her front door at 4 a.m. to find her 15-year-old child drugged and beaten, she didn’t expect to spend the next six years fighting for her daughter’s life.
Victoria says a fear of violence, addiction and perpetual abuse have cornered her daughter, Haley Recor, into sex trafficking since she was targeted, groomed and recruited by two girls close to her own age.
“What she thought was going to be a party ended up being a hotel room with three other men,” Victoria said of the night Haley was first sexually exploited as a minor in July 2015.
Each year since 2015, the Child Advocacy Center, a program of the Victims Assistance Center, has seen an increase in child survivors of abuse in Jefferson County.
If the need for action hasn’t been clear enough, mounting cases during COVID-19 suggest innovation is a priority. In 2020, the CAC served 1,703 children and caregivers compared to 1,188 in 2019, a jump of more than 500.
Educating families and communities on how to identify, respond to and report acts of abuse against minors can lead to more accurate totals of trafficking and abuse cases — potential for a fuller picture of why child crimes are growing in the north country.
To better understand what her daughter is going through, Victoria has attended numerous conferences and trainings and spent countless hours learning about human trafficking, including ways to fight it in her own community.
The deeper she dove into the topic, the more she also realized how generally unaware people around her in upstate New York were of the issue and noticed widespread misunderstanding of what trafficking often looks like.
“Where a community isn’t involved and is sleeping, are where these traffickers prey on the most,” Victoria said.
She said the often dramatic understandings of sex trafficking, which tend to overshadow efforts for awareness, are a far leap from the reality of what she has seen. People tend to learn of the harsh reality of victimization and the resources available only after an incident has occurred.
“You think you’re gonna just be their biggest protector,” Victoria said about her role as a mother. “There’s nothing you can do but learn from it and move on, and I try to now just leave my door open for her to always have a safe place.”
Looking back on her experience as a young mother, Victoria said she wishes she would’ve received more education about trafficking predators and taught her daughter the warning signs of manipulation and mental abuse. But Victoria says Haley was coerced and manipulated by someone she least expected — a high school friend in her daughter’s case.
“She’s told me, ‘Mom, I don’t want to do these things. It’s just like he finds me and I’m forced into all this stuff,’” Victoria remembers from one of the many fleeting conversations she’s had with her daughter.
As Victoria shared her daughter’s story at conferences, she said she’s also chased her daughter all across the state, often finding her beaten up and left at motels, or “trap houses.” When she gets the random phone call or visit from Haley, she said she just feels lucky to know her daughter’s alive.
Victoria said she’s found a calling to sound the alarm on the commercial sexual exploitation of children, rooted in a desperation to prevent children and parents from falling victim.
“People don’t believe it’s happening. Just like when people see domestic violence,” Victoria said. “We all know what’s wrong, but yet we turn our heads.”
‘It’s happening here’
“In a small area, people think that (sex trafficking) doesn’t happen,” Safe Harbour Coordinator Kiley Hilyer said. “That’s compounded by the misinformation that’s coming through social media and word of mouth.”
It’s that misinformation Kiley said made it difficult for Jefferson County to get funding to start a Safe Harbour program in the first place — part of a state initiative that supports counties in developing its capacity to identify youth who have been trafficked, sexually exploited or are at risk of victimization, according to the state Office of Children and Family Services website.
In January 2019, Kiley saw the program’s first trafficking case come through the center and was hopeful their first would be their last.
Now three years later, she and the critical team have coordinated investigations into 12 cases of sex trafficking — shocking totals compared to what they had predicted for the region, according to Kiley.
In addition to coordinating cases with multi-disciplinary teams involving child protective services, local law enforcement and district attorney offices, Kiley said Safe Harbour prioritizes the immediate care and safety of survivors like Haley who fear for their own safety and the safety of their loved ones if they ever leave their trafficker for good.
Emergency shelter, food, medical care, legal services, job and skills training, housing assistance and mental health counseling are all ways Safe Harbour and the advocates at the CAC can assist trafficking survivors who are unable to escape their traffickers.
“We want them to know that they can trust us,” Kiley said. “That we’re not going to lock them up and throw away the key, so that if they do run, they can stay safe while they’re out there.”
But while these Victims Assistance Center programs have continually cared for an ever-growing number of survivors of child abuse and sex trafficking, Kiley says she hopes to see more emphasis placed on reaching high-risk youth before they’re targeted for trafficking by adapting their responsive methods to more proactively engage the public.
The CAC and Safe Harbour have identified traits that can make certain children more prone to being victimized.
According to the CAC, runaway and homeless youth, including those in foster care or the juvenile justice system are at higher risk for targeting. Children with histories of abuse and addiction, those who have disabilities, as well as immigrants, non-English speaking children and LGBTQ youth are particularly susceptible.
Kiley continues to oversee expanding trainings in the tri-county area that are directed to these youth and those who have contact with them, such as probation officers, health care and social workers.
“They’re just kids,” Kiley said about trafficked youth. “It’s just about taking the scary out of it for these workers and letting them know what it looks like.”
‘It just takes that one person’
“When we first all went home in March, we feared that if these kids aren’t going to school, they’re going to fall through the cracks,” said Amy Quonce, CAC’s program director. “What we’ve seen is that a lot of people are calling in reports. They are speaking up.”
During a time of heightened trauma, Amy has witnessed one of the CAC’s newest team members, Emelia, a working service dog, provide a level of comfort that’s special between child and animal.
Since Emelia started working at the CAC in February 2019, she has been able to sit alongside survivors in court and grand jury testimony, during interviews, counseling sessions or even stand in for absent parents at court-ordered visitations, according to Amy, Emelia’s full-time handler and caregiver.
“They kept shaking hands and making deals to be brave together,” Amy said of Emelia’s first time with a child in a courtroom.
She said Emelia has been such a source of comfort for kids who rely on her for support when they go do scary things.
Forensic interviewer Christine Kennedy said while interviewing children, Emelia will often offer a welcomed sign of comfort during some of the most challenging and traumatic moments for a survivor recounting their abuse.
Filing a report of abuse can lead children and families down often years-long investigations, court proceedings and recovery. The CAC’s process during a case is largely child-led and by using a multidisciplinary team approach, Christine said they are able to minimize undue trauma by consolidating inter-agency communication, including testimony.
Given Christine’s background in law enforcement as the village of Dexter’s chief of police, she can’t help but recognize the success this model has also proven in her role as mobile unit coordinator for the CAC.
In 2019, the state gave the CAC two RVs, one for St. Lawrence County and the other for Jefferson and Lewis counties. The goal remains the same now as it was then: bring services to families in rural areas who didn’t have transportation to get to a CAC.
In 2020, 104 interviews were conducted between the two state-of-the-art Winnebagos, even using it in the parking lot of the Watertown office to accommodate clients during COVID-19.
Each Child Advocacy Mobile Office, or CAMO, is meant to function exactly like the CAC’s Watertown or Canton office, equipped with a soundproof interview room, monitoring system, internet and space on board for advocates to sit and talk with families.
It’s assets like Emelia and tools such as the mobile units that have enabled the CAC to meet the growing needs of their upstate clients. But while this innovation has led to effective community response, Christine said it’s the role of the community itself to know the signs of child abuse and trafficking and look out for children.
“I’m surprised by the number of reported child abuse cases that come through our agency,” Christine said. “The number is big. I think that it’s probably bigger than what we know.”
‘She has a lot of hope’
Victoria dedicates most of her time to sharing information about trafficking and abuse through social media, word of mouth and on poster boards while rallying in Public Square, sometimes with just her 12-year-old son Nilo by her side.
Her daughter Haley’s case stands as one of Safe Harbour’s original files since it predates the program’s establishment in 2019. But since 2015, Victoria said Kiley and the CAC have been with her family every step of the way as her daughter navigates her tightrope life, giving her counseling and shelter whenever she needs.
Haley’s son, who she had in 2018, is currently with a foster family Victoria said she’s gotten to know very well and trusts with her grandson. She wants to see her daughter get into a rehab facility for the help, guidance and the safety she needs to escape for good.
Even though Victoria tries to be strong for her daughter and has a strong support system with family close by, Haley’s absence reminds her of how far she believes her daughter still has to go to rebuild her life and recover from the trauma she’s endured over the years.
“She just feels like she’s nobody,” Victoria said.
“My heart completely breaks for her,” she said as her voice cracked. Victoria paused and continued through tears, “because it’s just sad to see ... a vibrant girl who’s so loving. Who’s just ... she’s an amazing girl. And it’s just sad that they’ve just destroyed her.”
Victoria said she and Haley have talked about what her life may look like once she gets out of trafficking and said her daughter wants to eventually speak at schools to share her story and warn others who may be at high-risk of victimization.
Eventually, Victoria wants to be on the front lines fighting against trafficking, perhaps in a role similar to Kiley or something in law enforcement.
“I’ve kicked in quite a few doors around here — not probably a good thing — but hey, when your kid’s on the other side of the door and you know things are going on, you’re gonna do what you’re gonna do to protect your children,” Victoria said.
While Victoria can’t help but recognize the role that generational trauma from her own troubled past may have played in her daughter’s development, she said she’s learned that it wasn’t her fault.
Accepting the fact that she can’t turn back time, she said she focuses on being strong for her daughter, being there for her whenever she needs help, and being a voice of warning to others.
“If I could save them all, I would, and if I had a big house, I would take them all in,” she said.
Part 2: Many victims have difficulty escaping cycle of abuse
WATERTOWN — One week before Erica Monaco was set to walk down the aisle, the man she was about to marry physically hurt her for the first time.
From the moment Erica met her now ex-husband online, to when she would take his last name, just three months would pass. Reflecting on the relationship now — more than a year later — Erica sees this wasn’t when the abuse and coercion began.
Following the incident before their wedding, he would continue to manipulate her. Erica said she still didn’t see the abuse for what it was, and she ended up following through with the ceremony. But what she brushed off as a one-time mishap was just the next step in his ongoing pursuit of control.
Now at her home in Hastings, Oswego County, Erica describes her previous marriage — lasting eight months — as a series of points along a very brief timeline.
“It’s magical in the beginning, and then it turns into a nightmare,” Erica said of her whirlwind love story.
A survivor of abuse now armed with wisdom from those traumatic months and a new-found career in social work, she tells her story with the intent of dismantling common sentiments of guilt and doubt often placed on victims — a painful solitude she experienced herself.
Countless barriers can stand in the way of leaving an abusive relationship, but misconceptions of a victim’s experience often cast shame on their circumstances. That shame leaves them isolated from safety and support.
Of 10,081 people surveyed across the country in 2015 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 3 people — men and women — experienced psychological aggression and/or physical violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime.
But, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, it takes a victim an average of seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship before they leave for good.
‘It was kind of a whirlwind’
On March 12, 2018, Erica matched with her now ex-husband on an online dating app, Tinder. His profile indicated he was moving to Fort Drum from Virginia, and was looking to meet new people in the area. She turned down the soldier’s initial romantic advances, but found herself being courted as he continued to adamantly pursue her.
She said she was showered with flowers, jewelry and promises of a better life. He would tell her if they got married, she would have health insurance and financial security through the military.
On May 1, 2018, he moved to Fort Drum, and by the end of the month, he proposed. The couple was married less than a month later — June 29, 2018.
“He could have killed me easily on a couple different occasions,” she said of her relationship with her ex-husband.
“You’re just waiting to say the wrong thing. You’re walking on eggshells constantly and I don’t feel that way anymore,” she added. “I go day to day not worrying about if I’m going to have to end up in the hospital.”
On March 6, 2019 — eight months after their wedding — Erica pulled the plug on the relationship. She’d had enough. She couldn’t take it anymore. Leading up to that night, she and her ex-husband had been having problems. She said she knew where things were going to end up.
She had decided to divorce her husband and press charges for domestic violence. But it’s at this point, she said, when telling her story that the judgment, questioning and doubt began.
“Why did you follow through and marry him?” “How could you love someone who was treating you like that?” “Why didn’t you just leave?” These were just some of the questions she was asked.
‘Is anybody going to believe me?’
Chelsea Bango is a clinic director and therapist for the Child Advocacy Center at the Victims Assistance Center. She works one-on-one with clients and is able to provide a safe space for talking about abuse.
She said she is all too familiar with the harm that can come from a misguided response.
“It can sometimes start with just disbelief and denial that they’re even being victimized,” Chelsea said of a victim coming forward. “At that point, even early on, a lot of self-blame, feeling like they’re asking for it, or they deserve it.”
A survivor’s path to recovery can look vastly different depending on how they are treated when they come forward and tell the truth.
Chelsea describes one path as a yellow brick road — the victim is believed, supported and given access to resources to help them through the healing process.
Many abuse victims endure intense psychological trauma which breaks down their confidence, she said, so having validation of their experiences and feelings can be the first step to becoming empowered after the abuse.
When a victim is not believed or supported right away, Chelsea said the likelihood of a full recovery begins to dwindle as they are now isolated from help and likely harbor feelings of guilt, shame and hopelessness.
“You’re so brainwashed at that point, you feel helpless, and you love this person,” Erica said. “You want to believe that they’re going to change and you actually start believing that maybe you’re part of the problem.”
‘That’s how I figured it out’
It wasn’t until Erica saw the cycle of abuse in her social work class that she realized the model she was looking at was her own life.
The cycle of abuse, or cycle of violence, is a four-step model first published in Lenore Walker’s book, “The Battered Woman” in 1979. Ever since, the chart has helped social workers and psychologists illustrate common patterns of abusive behavior in relationships and explain why victims often have a hard time leaving.
The definition of abuse has shifted over the decades to include any tactics meant to control or maintain power over others, according to Healthline.com.
To make the pattern, intent and impact of violence visible, another model called the Power and Control Wheel was developed in 1984 by the staff at Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs out of Duluth, Minn. By including more modern examples of abuse, the wheel further expands on the relationship dynamics between abuser and victim.
Since graphics such as these aren’t widely seen by the public, the VAC works to bridge this gap through education by regularly sharing information on social media and other mediums in the tri-county area.
At Jefferson Community College, Destiny Walker, a VAC advocate on campus, spends her days talking to those just stepping into adulthood about common assumptions made of domestic violence and red flags of abusive behavior in relationships.
If you don’t know what to look for, Destiny said, it is often hard to spot the early signs of emotional abuse and manipulation in young relationships since controlling behavior usually builds over time. She explained how important it is to validate the victim’s feelings and remind them the abuse is not their fault and nothing they could have done would warrant it.
Just as she believes in education for prevention, she stresses information for survival.
‘My dad knew something wasn’t right’
There are many different reasons why people don’t leave abusive relationships. If a chance for escape ever does arise, attempting to flee can be the most dangerous time for a victim, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
It’s at this point, Chelsea explained, the abuser feels out of control. They are desperate to maintain the balance of power in the relationship and will take whatever measures they feel necessary to contain it.
On New Year’s Eve 2019, Erica tried to escape with nothing on but a blanket wrapped around her. Her ex-husband grabbed hold and yanked the blanket to catch her. She fell to the ground and hit her head so hard she said she knew her skull was fractured. He insisted on taking her to the hospital, she said.
In the exam room, with her abuser at her side, a nurse asked Erica if she was in a safe place. She responded in a joking tone, “Would you feel safe with him in the house?”
“You spend so long hiding the truth, hiding bruises, making excuses,” Erica said. “What you don’t know is you’re setting yourself up to look like a liar.”
Erica would post photos of the happy moments in the marriage and said it was as though she was using social media as a form of positive reinforcement directed at her ex-husband. This meant she wanted to repeat those good times — moments she said never lasted for long.
Unfortunately, the facade made it even harder for her when she eventually came forward. She said it was as if she was the little boy who cried wolf.
“If you’re concerned about somebody being in an abusive relationship, watch their social media because when things are bad, the person goes silent,” she said.
She encouraged people to open their doors to anyone they may think is being abused and warned not to shut them out if they come forward because that’s often exactly what the abuser wants.
‘I realized how confined I’ve been’
As a mental health professional, Chelsea wants to see a growth in understanding and acceptance for what victims go through. By opening up these conversations, she hopes local services will become more accessible for people who have been afraid to reach out.
“Violence within a home or violence from one person to another person is something that isn’t talked about very much and when it is talked about, it’s talked about in a very judgmental way,” Chelsea said.
Throughout the marriage, Erica said she became isolated as her ex-husband manipulated her family and friends against her. Because of this, she found it much more difficult to find help and support when she was ready to speak out.
Erica said when her ex-husband got abusive with her, he would take her phone and car keys away so she couldn’t leave and couldn’t call for help. But the night of March 6, 2019, was different – she held onto her phone.
Erica said as he was trying to take the phone from her, she fought back. He busted her lip open. Upon seeing the blood, she screamed, and he ran off. She dialed 911 and first responders arrived shortly after.
When it was time to decide on her steps moving forward, she said she actually called him and asked him what to do, but when he responded “I was never there tonight,” she knew she had to get out for good.
Erica reached out to the Fort Drum Victim Advocate Services program and began seeking orders of protection, filing for divorce, pressing charges for domestic violence and slowly moving on with her life.
She said her advocate, Andrea Peck, was right by her side every step of the way during what she considers the worst months of her life.
“When I sat down with Andrea ... she looked at me and she said, ‘I believe you,’ and I burst out crying,” Erica said. “It was the first time I felt like somebody was actually hearing me and believing what I was saying.”
Erica said she felt her ex-husband’s chain of command only cared to sweep the abuse under the rug. She said they discouraged her from filing orders of protection and seeking victims assistance.
Seemingly endless hoops to jump through left Erica not wanting to get out of bed many days. She said that’s often a deterrent for why victims don’t reach out — the long process involved in leaving an abusive relationship.
Coming out of the abusive relationship, Erica found a calling to help others in similar situations and pursued a career in social work. She credits her advocate, Andrea, for inspiring her.
With her own experiences and new-found education, she wants to address the pitfalls in the system she felt let her down. She believes there needs to be more done to prevent abuse in the first place by educating on the warning signs and reaching abusers themselves. She said she also wants to see more accountability for abusers in the military and their chain of command.
Erica is now on the warpath to make the journey for survivors more bearable.
“A lot of women think they can’t do it on their own. Yes, you can. Yes, you can. It’s gonna be hard for a while, but it’s so worth it,” she said.
VAC launches their 100 Campaign on Monday and is seeking 100 participants for this new fundraising initiative during the pandemic. If you are interested in participating, or want to learn more about ways to support VAC, you can follow the agency on Facebook or contact VAC’s development director, Madelaine Taylor, at 315-755-1434 or via email at email@example.com.
Part 1: Watertown native finding hope after near-fatal 2016 assault
WATERTOWN — Michelle Littler’s life was happily ordinary.
Content in her relationship, Michelle, a Watertown native who later moved to Pennsylvania in 1999, was set to walk down the aisle in six months. Excelling in her career, she was up for a promotion to be head of the department of art and design at the Erie Institute of Technology. Everything was on track. She had no complaints.
“Life took a weird turn,” Michelle said. “What I had planned for my life was going to be completely different than what ended up happening.”
On Sept. 15, 2016, at her home in Erie, Penn., Michelle was assaulted by her then-fiancé, an attack that lasted some three hours, ending only when she locked herself in the bathroom with his phone and called 911. Nearly lifeless due to a crushed windpipe and extensive injuries to 85% of her body, first responders arrived and she was treated by EMTs, at one point requiring a defibrillator to regain a pulse. She was then rushed to the hospital.
The one question she remembers a police officer asking her was, “What did you do to make him angry?”
Michelle’s assailant was later charged with misdemeanor harassment of a subject with physical contact in connection with the incident, to which he pleaded guilty and paid a $300 fine.
Never having considered their relationship abusive, Michelle could only guess the attack was a result of alcohol, drugs or simply a mental snap. She later found out he destroyed her phone and cut the brakes to her car, suggesting to her the assault was premeditated.
As Michelle was recovering in the hospital, the assailant drained their shared finances, including her entire 401(k), and now without a job or insurance, she had no way to pay mounting medical bills.
“You have to figure it out as you go, which you aren’t mentally capable of doing and you shouldn’t have to,” Michelle said. “All the services that could get you at least expedited faster in healing — you don’t know where to go.
“I mean, here we are four years out and I’m still dealing with the physical ramification,” she added.
Response to domestic violence varies from one community to the next, but since survivors are often left to pick up the pieces of a shattered reality, access to resources to regain financial, physical and emotional stability can mean the difference between moving forward or returning to abuse.
Domestic violence and victimization was deemed a crisis long ago, as incidents continue to climb. But consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic — such as stay-at-home orders, financial stressors and lack of social interaction — have exacerbated the threat of abuse and violence to those shuttered in their homes.
One north country organization is working to change this.
The Victims Assistance Center served 760 more people in 2020 than in 2019, and answered double the amount of hotline calls.
While there may be no predicted timeline as a survivor embarks on their recovery, victims in the tri-county area should know they have people already in their corner if they should ever need help — a team of individuals dedicated to rebuilding their community.
“I think there would just be a less of a chance that you’re going to fall through the cracks,” Michelle said of the agency’s Immediate Response Team, which she said would have helped in her situation. “There is a women’s services in Erie that helps you do the protection from abuse order, however, they don’t help with therapists, medication, physical therapy, specialists — anything like that.”
‘It’s still a scary time for people’
A beacon in the north country for more than 40 years, the Victims Assistance Center, or VAC, 418 Washington St., has continually adapted services to meet the evolving needs of communities in the tri-county area, remaining steadfast in their mission to support and empower victims of crime.
As the VAC began adapting their procedures and operations in March, there was no doubt their services would still be needed. But unfamiliar circumstances led to more questions than answers about how a global pandemic would affect a victim’s ability to receive the help they need.
Endless variables and irregularities over the months have made it difficult for the agency to determine trends of domestic violence, abuse and victimization as a whole, according to VAC Executive Director Jill Parker, but the growing need for help became apparent when looking at the year’s call logs.
During the early months of the pandemic, all calls were directed to a single person, Amy Contryman, VAC’s shelter director. She would patch callers through to staff members working from home. She said they would receive 20 to 30 calls a day, as compared to the typical five to 10. She was on the phone from the time she walked in the door — 8 a.m. — until the time she left at 4 p.m.
“Sometimes it was somebody that just wanted somebody to talk to with everything going on, or if we knew any resources out there that could help them during COVID,” she said of the phone calls received.
Regardless of the challenges COVID-19 continues to bring, VAC’s innovation in victim outreach prior to the pandemic meant they could better serve victims who were stranded at home.
Lack of financial stability, lack of support from friends and family, and lack of reliable transportation — these are just a few reasons one may not be able to escape an abuser.
In 1999, VAC, known then as the Women’s Center, saw how the initial response to scenes of domestic violence could play a crucial role in breaking the cycle of abuse by reaching victims at that critical moment. This established the Immediate Response Team, or IRT.
“We discovered that there was a need for more first contact with victims,” said Devin Duffy, VAC’s direct service coordinator. “(We) decided it would be beneficial to go out with law enforcement and see them in the moment when that’s happening and be able to provide that information.”
The time of escape or intervention is often the most dangerous for a victim due to potential retaliation by their abuser, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. First responders arriving on scene, quelling an incident, then walking away can easily leave victims in a more dangerous position than before.
Utilizing Jefferson County dispatch, a response team advocate, or RTA, is alerted every time a domestic incident is called in to 911. The advocate goes to the scene alongside first responders and engages the victim once the area is secure with the intention of doing just as their title suggests — advocate for them in any capacity they may need.
The IRT provides resources and options to victims, which could eliminate logistical barriers at the time of the crisis, potentially opening the door to a life a victim didn’t think was possible.
“That’s the stepping stone,” Samantha John, a VAC case manager said. “Law enforcement and RTA goes and gets them, brings them to shelter, intake, they live there, and then that’s the stepping stone into their new life.”
‘They find their voice again’
One resource provided by VAC is an undisclosed location in Watertown called the Safe Shelter, which serves as Jefferson County’s only emergency housing option with capacity for 20 people — 14 domestic violence survivors and six people experiencing homelessness.
Each morning, case managers Samantha John and Nicole Mason call VAC’s Safe Shelter to check if any new clients arrived overnight. Often coming with just the clothes on their backs, Sam and Nicole are prepared to walk with their clients every step of the way as they rebuild and recover.
Clients are allowed to stay at Safe Shelter for 90 days, and case managers at VAC put wheels in motion to secure housing for them immediately. Thanks to strong relationships Nicole has built with local housing authorities, her clients will sometimes be put at the top of the wait list due to their circumstances. She’s even had a landlord adjust their rent to work within a client’s budget.
Though securing housing can be a long process, Samantha and Nicole are busy ticking off other boxes for their clients in the meantime — filing orders of protection, counseling referrals, school enrollment, doctors visits, attending court proceedings. The list goes on.
Case managers at VAC will also work with local food banks, school supply drives and other nonprofits to find any goods their clients may need. For those staying at Safe Shelter, clients have access to the essentials — clothing, food, washer and dryer, toys for kids and toiletries.
Nicole and the other case managers continue to struggle finding beds when relocating their clients. They estimate at least half end up sleeping on the floor.
“I would go home and lay in my bed and think, ‘They’re on an air mattress on their floor in their new apartment tonight, and I’m not going to complain about anything in my life tonight,’” Nicole said.
Samantha and Nicole took matters into their own hands to help find beds for clients. VAC has created an initiative called the Off the Floor Fund, or OFF, where community members are encouraged to donate money to the agency specifically for new air mattresses. The initiative is set to launch in about two weeks.
Even after their clients are finally able to rest their heads and move forward, VAC makes it clear that their help does not stop after they’ve left the shelter or their court case is settled.
‘I see hope now’
Michelle said her mother, who’s had a long career as a nurse, was instrumental in her recovery after the assault.
She said she could never rely on medical professionals for a sense of hope.
“If you don’t tell somebody, ‘This may be what it is now, but this may not be what it is three years from now,’ you’re really limiting that person’s recovery,” Michelle said. “You don’t know what that person is capable of.”
Left in the dark and with questions unanswered, she found herself being given medication to numb her symptoms rather than options of physical or psychological therapy to help her overcome them. She said it was very easy to become addicted to pills since they were the only sense of comfort she had, easing the pain both physically and mentally.
On July 4, 2017, after about a year of drug addiction, Michelle attempted to complete suicide, and it was at this turning point she believes she experienced a cruel irony.
“The weird part of Erie, Pennsylvania,” Michelle said, “is there’s more hope for you if you’re a recovering drug addict than if you’re a recovering domestic violence survivor.”
Michelle was offered a team of specialists when admitted to rehab following her attempt — psychiatrists, and physical therapists to get her on track to recovery. But as the victim of an assault by a man, which nearly ended her life, it seemed that only when she threatened to take her own life she was helped.
She believes it wouldn’t have been the route she chose had her prognosis been more hopeful. Now she not only has a team of professionals at her side to guide her, but an army of supporters, as well as those online who have taken part in Michelle’s mission to break the silence.
‘We’re not going to stand for this anymore’
One day, Michelle watched a video called “25 way to prevent domestic violence.”
“All of these were things women should and shouldn’t do, but never once did it say, ‘Hey guys, don’t hit your lady,’” she said with a tone of annoyance in her voice.
Fed up with a lack of awareness for resources and support for survivors, she has organized several domestic violence walks, wear purple Wednesdays, small business initiatives and art shows in Erie over the last couple years.
Ready to take on the cause yet another year, COVID-19 disrupted her plans for in-person events in 2020, but she quickly took to Facebook and online platforms to start conversations about domestic violence prevention she felt were missing.
With a call to -ManUp, Michelle started a petition on change.org, addressed to Pennsylvania state officials, which asks people who sign it to pledge to never commit a violent act against anyone. The petition, which has garnered some 6,000 signatures, also asks those who sign to acknowledge the responsibility of the community to teach younger generations respect and non-violence in relationships.
The petition is not meant to place blame on men, or make any generalizations about gender roles within abusive relationships, she said.
Her goal is to reinvent the conversation around domestic violence to more actively address abuse prevention on the end of the abuser. Tactics such as self-identifying signs of abusive behavior, proactively seeking therapy and talking about the topic more openly can help in breaking down stigmas, which have historically kept these conversations in the dark.
Having regularly encountered a lack of understanding and compassion by people around her, she realized that by opening up about her own experiences, she could shed light on the numerous obstacles victims face when coming out of abuse, as well as inform the public about circumstances, which, when left to fester behind closed doors, can have fatal results.
As support for her movement continues to grow across the state, and even globally, back in her hometown of Watertown, her brother Sean Duffany remains her number one cheerleader, embodying the example of what Michelle hopes other men will do for survivors — offer love and support.
He couldn’t believe what his sister went through, and he hopes her story will foster empathy and acceptance for survivors. After all, abusers make the choice to abuse, he said, and no matter the excuses or reasons they may give, the abuse is never the victim’s fault.
“I’m sure she still has probably a ways to go,” Sean said of his sister’s recovery. “You would never know by talking to her just because she has that strong persona.
“I could think of no better figurehead for a movement than her,” he added.
If you are interested in learning more about ways to support VAC or the new initiatives the agency is launching this year, such as Off the Floor Fund or The 100 Campaign, you can follow the agency on Facebook or contact VAC’s development director, Madelaine Taylor at 315-755-1434 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.