Story by: David Brand
Thirty years ago, Caroline left her abusive husband and, with her four-month-old twins, moved into an extra room at her parents’ house. She cracked the window that first night and felt the mild breeze — a literal breath of fresh air after years of abrupt beatings and routine emotional abuse.
“I laid down on the mattress and it occurred to me that I could go to sleep and not worry about someone coming in late and punching me,” said Caroline, who asked not to use her last name for this story. “Breathing in the air, I felt like it was symbolic. I was finally free.”
But adjusting to her new life wasn’t that easy, she said. Neither was getting over her past relationship. She was lonely and felt an “emptiness” after leaving, she said. “Even though this man was abusive, he was the father of my children. There was love there at first,” she said.
Caroline said she received support from a therapist who for years helped her identify and overcome what she describes as low self-esteem. She went on to become a mentor and advocate herself, serving as a member of the VOICES Committee of the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence, or ENDGBV.
In that role she connects and guides other survivors — a process that, like so many services, is complicated by the coronavirus.
Therapy sessions are now conducted by telephone. The peer groups through video conference.
Since March, outreach has gone remote at four of New York City’s five Family Justice Centers. The centers serve survivors of domestic violence and are overseen by ENDGBV.
Contacts have decreased citywide since the sites switched to remote visits. Between March 20 and Dec. 11, ENDGBV recorded 19,416 visits — conducted virtually — down from 29,715 over the same period in 2019.
But this year, the number of new clients has increased — from 6,694 between March 20 and Dec. 11, 2019 to 8,965 this year, according to city statistics.
The agency credits its remote transition for reaching more new survivors even as dual health and economic crises have intensified abuse while making it harder for survivors to leave their relationships.
“COVID-19 puts into sharp focus the vulnerabilities that many people in our city face every day, especially gender-based violence survivors,” said ENDGBV Commissioner Cecile Noel. “And it highlights the barriers and challenges that we know keep people from seeking help and finding safety.”
The virtual services are a major shift for survivors, predominantly women, who often rely on community connections in the challenging months after leaving a relationship, said Angelina Rosado, another VOICES Committee member.
“You get out and it’s not all bunnies and rainbows,” Rosado said. “Now the work starts. I had to retrain my brain to be like, ‘I’m not controlled anymore’ and to get to a place I’m not familiar with.”
“That takes a mental toll on people,” she added.
In those moments, online networks can be a lifeline and an immediate source of support, said Rosado, who left her abusive partner five years ago. She formed an organization to connect with survivors of domestic violence and has been active on social media and in Zoom sessions to reach women who have left or who are thinking of leaving abusers.
She said she uses Instagram to spread awareness and connect with women. She and other survivors also find community in Facebook groups, where they can post about their mood, their doubts or their mental health and receive feedback from their peers.
“Facebook groups are really dope. You can be in a group where these people understand you, aren’t judging you, they’ve been through what you are going through. You go through this process together,” she said.
In one 700-member group, survivors may post that they are having a tough time and immediately receive responses from others, she said.
“If one woman writes in this group and says ‘I’m having a bad day,’ you have 500 comments telling you you’re amazing,” she said. “If I’m feeling low, I have hundreds of women behind me making sure I don’t fall.”
Those social media connections supplement remote services from programs like the Queens Family Justice Center.
The programs do not pressure survivors to leave their situations, but they do provide support whatever an individual’s circumstances, said END GBV Deputy Director Denise Cortes.
“We’re there for survivors no matter what. We support them because they know best what their situation is,” Cortes said. “They are the experts in their own lives.”
Survivors are also powerful, said Caroline; they have to be in order to navigate abuse while keeping themselves and their families safe.
“These women are stronger than you think,” Caroline said.
For the past few decades, she has focused her own strength on helping her peers — now through a remote. format.
“I can’t change what happened to me. I had many years being emotionally and physically abused. But I can help others,” she said. “Saving one woman from domestic violence is not going to change the world, but for that woman, it will change her world forever.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, help is available via New York City’s 24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-621-4673, New York State’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline at 800-942-6906 and online through Safe Horizon. In an emergency, call 911.
Survivors with access to the internet can visit nyc.gov/NYCHOPE for additional resources and information.
Survivors are also able to call NYC Well (1-888-692-9355) for help with stress and anxiety.