Sonia (pictured), a survivor of domestic violence, spent a night in her car outside one of the state’s 18 domestic violence shelters because it wasn’t open when she arrived in need of help. Now, with a new law in place Thursday that provides almost $3 million in state and federal funding, all the shelters will soon be open 24/7.
That was the main message at a Tuesday press conference at the offices of Domestic Violence Services of Greater New Haven on Whitney Avenue. Half a dozen Democratic state lawmakers took turns squeezing up to the podium in a tiny conference room to celebrate three laws they helped pass that will help victims of domestic violence—overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, women and children.
Executive Director Sandra Koorijian (pictured) began by saying, “Last year we helped over 7,600 men, women and children in the shelter, on the hotline, in the courts, in support groups and in individual counseling programs.”
Rep. Mike Lawlor (East Haven) said in the past 30 years—since the brutal attempted murder of Tracy Thurman by her husband, Buck, in Torrington, put the issue front and center in Connecticut and led to the first major changes in how domestic violence cases are treated—he’s seen small changes in the way the state deals with domestic violence. He said this year’s laws mark major progress.
“This required some heavy lifting,” he told reporters facing him across the small conference room. “Imagine in this budget crisis trying to find money to dedicate to staffing shelters for victims of domestic violence around the clock. But that was done. All of this came from the front line professionals— the prosecutors, the police officers, the victim advocates, the probation and parole officers—telling us what was missing.”
It’s not just the $1.75 million from the state, matched by $1 million from the feds. Another law that takes effect July 1 requires schools to provide information on preventing teen dating violence. A third sets up a pilot program for electronic monitoring family violence offenders. “But,” added Lawlor (pictured), “I think the single biggest thing of all is it’s helping to change attitudes—people in the criminal justice system and citizens throughout our state—because not only will people think twice before victimizing family members and loved ones, but also, when they do it, they’ll be called out by their friends and their neighbors.”
Sonia (who declined to give her last name) spoke after the lawmakers. She said having 24-hour staffing of the shelters would be a big help to women. “Your security, your comfort—everything that you have known—to be taken away in the blink of a eye—and to have someone there to talk to you, to comfort you, to counsel you, or just to love on you or just hear you cry or scream or whatever it is, it’s a big help. Domestic violence is something; it’s not nothing that we should just” overlook.
Money first. She said all the shelter directors will be meeting with officials from the state Department of Social Services in mid-July to learn more about when to expect the money actually to arrive. (No further information was available from DSS by press time.) Nevertheless, she expressed jubilation about the coming changes, saying that except for a year or two in the late 1980s, the New Haven shelter has never been open 24/7. She said calls to the hotline to date have been taken by the answering service between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m. and could be referred to staff if they were emergencies, and were handled over the phone. But having the shelters open will be a much better alternative.
Koorijian’s colleague Colleen Monroe is the agency’s family violence victim advocate. (She’s on the right, pictured with State Sen. Toni Harp, who, as chair of the Appropriations Committee, pushed the funding through the General Assembly). Monroe said both the numbers of women using shelters and the intensity of their injuries has increased in recent years. She said partly that was due to the recession and all the stresses created in families over lost or threatened jobs and homes. But she added, “The more attention [on the problem of domestic violence], the less violence will occur. The lack of attention has contributed to people [batterers] feeling they can get away with more.” She said these new laws (with more coming on-line October 1) will contribute to victims taking advantage of the services available.
After the news conference, Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell issued her own statement: “It is essential we address the entire scope of family violence. This begins with understanding why it occurs, how best to protect victims in their most desperate moments and what steps we can take now to prevent future tragedies. These comprehensive reforms will help strengthen our domestic violence laws, which are already some of the toughest in the nation. We must continue to do all we can to keep families safe and give police, prosecutors and others the tools they need to respond effectively to this serious, devastating issue. There are far too many heartbreaking tales of needless, brutal and preventable tragedies involving domestic violence.”
Koorijian noted that Connecticut has been one of just five states in the country that do not provide 24/7 coverage in shelters. The others are Wyoming, Nevada, New Hampshire and Maine. “Shame on Connecticut,” she said, “one of the richest states in the nation.”