“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Many generations of children have memorized this rhyme, but is it true? Faced with barrages of insults and demeaning language, victims of domestic violence know all too well that words can indeed hurt. In fact, the pain of a sharp tongue can linger for years, impacting a person’s self-esteem, relationship with others, and ability to thrive.
In an October 2018 public hearing by the New York City Council Committee on Women, Fortune ATI (Alternatives to Incarceration) Counselor Alisha Bailey shared her story of psychological, verbal, and emotional abuse and her path to hope after five years of suffering. Compassionate community was key to her ability to find the strength to move from a negative environment and commit deeper to her well-being.
Read a condensed version of Alisha’s testimony below and see how proposed policy measures will help individuals impacted by domestic violence access the support they need to move forward from troubling relationships and thrive in positive environments.
Experiencing abuse influences how a person feels, thinks, and connects with the world. For some survivors, the traumatic effects of abuse can be alleviated with increased safety and support, while others require more comprehensive treatment and care. Too many of the participants that I serve at The Fortune Society have grown up in families marked by domestic violence.
For me, the help I needed was available at a family justice center. The psychological, verbal, and emotional abuse had lasted five extremely long years. After one-thousand-and-one stupid’s, dummy’s, and idiots, you hear it often enough that you start to believe it, so you start to become it.
When I heard my teenage daughter mimic this learned relationship dynamic in her young dating life, like a freight train, it hit me. This had to stop— immediately. It wasn’t until I was able to pull myself out of that horrible, co-dependent, unhealthy, abusive relationship that I realized the impact on my family. Then, like a ripple effect, I was also awakened to my other surroundings. I started to realize how many women around me were in similar situations. Maybe once you’ve survived it, your gift is the ability to recognize others still entangled so you can help them survive, too.
I unequivocally support Intro. Number 1085, calling for a program to provide access to full legal representation for domestic violence survivors in all divorce proceedings in Supreme Court related to domestic violence matters. So often, hiring competent legal counsel is beyond one’s financial capacity. In other situations, limitations might be related to the abuser’s fiscal control over the couple’s resources. In many African American and Hispanic communities, people fear the legal system and therefore will not report abuse, let alone seek a divorce they cannot afford. Allowing survivors to be adequately represented ensures their best interest is protected before the court when important decisions are being made about their future.
Intro. Number 542 is also an important step in the right direction. Helping survivors increase access to economic resources, physical safety, and legal protections is critical. But approaching providing those services in a way that is meaningful to the survivors is paramount. Service providers should be engaging in culturally-sensitive, trauma-informed approaches to assist survivors in strengthening their own capacities to address the complex issues that they face. Helping survivors rebuild their lives include teaching someone to become capable of accessing safety, recovering from the traumatic effects of domestic violence, and reimagining their future.
Seeking services in the family justice center was difficult at times. It was always associated with the court, police were present, which was all meant to make it feel safer but made it feel more focused on arrest than on me. In the future, I would like to see more options to seek services in the community, safely, but less focused on justice and more focused on me as a person, my well-being, with long-term aftercare. I would be more likely to continue staying connected if I didn’t associate each visit with arrest, court visits, police, and the past and more with my healing and journey forward.
Furthermore, many incarcerated women are charged with crimes that include defending themselves against intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Women with justice involvement may not feel comfortable or safe seeking services in a space so closely connected to the court system upon release. It is natural to feel hesitation reaching out for help from a family justice center when it feels so closely associated with the criminal justice and punitive correction system they are so familiar with, particularly if the buildings are located close by. For these reasons, I recommend considering having remote locations in all boroughs associated with the family justice centers but stationed in the community and with more welcoming names.
Collecting feedback from survivors like myself will hopefully lead to more informed decision making on behalf of programs. Evaluating and reflecting on how a project is performing from the perspective of the participant is a critical part of understanding where opportunities for improvement exist and pinpointing opportunities to capitalize on program strengths—all of which should ultimately translate into better engagement, longer retention rates, and healthier, safer communities.
Regarding Intro. Number 351, I believe this report will help the Mayor, the Speaker, and the public understand certain domestic violence initiatives of the city, leading to greater transparency of what efforts are effective and what areas may be in need of improvement.
The Fortune Society applauds the NYC Council Committee on Women for recognizing the complexities that being a survivor of domestic violence presents, urge you to explore further the intersection of incarceration and domestic violence, and hope to see these bills enacted, with support from The Fortune Society participants and staff.