UNION COUNTY, NJ — The third annual Union County Community, Action, Response, Education, and Safety Domestic Violence Symposium was held on Thursday, April 7 at Kean University’s STEM Center in Union.
The symposium, which was sponsored by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, YWCA of Union County, Kean University, the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Family and Children’s Services of Elizabeth, Iris House, and Trinitas Regional Medical Center, featured more than a dozen speakers focusing on the central topic of the “5 W’s of Domestic Violence: Who, What, Where, When, and Why.”
The symposium featured 11 panelists from fields ranging from law enforcement to social services, and covered topics such as those affected by domestic violence and why; how to identify domestic violence and when to respond; and the issue of why domestic violence remains such a pervasive problem.
Janice Lilien, Executive Director of the YWCA of Union County, says that domestic violence remains the most underreported crime in the United States. “One in four women will be the victims of domestic violence,” said Lilien, who is in her third year at YWCA. “There is a general lack of understanding. Often victims are blamed for their own abuse. The most common question they are asked is, ‘Why did you let that happen?’”
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that 1.3 million women in the United States become victims of physical violence by an intimate partner annually and, in recent years, Union County municipal police departments have handled approximately 3,500 to 4,000 domestic violence calls per year — an average of more than 10 per day.
Lilien says that victims of domestic violence come from all demographics, and that there are many forms of abuse, including sexual, psychological, physical and financial abuse.
“So often people think that domestic violence is confined to only one group, and they don’t realize that victims can be of any race, religion, economic strata, and age,” Lilien said. “By focusing on the ‘5 W’s,’ we hope to dispel this myth and demonstrate that, in fact, domestic violence is an equal-opportunity crime and can happen to anyone.”
One concern that Lilien expresses is the fact that the real number when it comes to domestic abuse cases are approximately 2 to 3 times more than the number of reported cases. “Police often call it a ‘domestic disturbance,’” said Lilien. “Law enforcement often minimizes domestic violence.”
Lilien says that undocumented victims are often hesitant to report abuse because they have been threatened to be turned in to immigration by their partners. In more affluent communities, victims are often reluctant to report abuse because of the stigma. In addition, victims of domestic violence are often isolated by their abusers, being slowly cut off from friends and family, making it that much more difficult to reach out for help.
Union County Prosecutor Grace Park says that it was a number of factors that spurred her to initiate the symposium, including being approached by Lilien who asked if they might partner on an annual event that casts a spotlight on domestic violence. “Our goal was raising awareness and emphasizing prevention,” said Park. “During my first six months in office, there were multiple cases that arose involving particularly disturbing incidents of violence against women, and that further highlighted the need to call attention to this matter.”
Park says that in April 2014, after months of planning and the addition of more sponsor organizations, the first symposium was held. “We chose the month of April because National Crime Victims’ Rights Week is held that month each year, and we are thrilled that the symposium has only grown bigger and better ever since,” said Park. “More than 200 people registered and attended this year’s symposium.”
Attendees included representatives from a wide variety of fields, including social services, law enforcement, nonprofit work, healthcare and more.
According to Park, operations of the Union County Domestic Violence Unit were streamlined and reorganized in late 2014, a process that included the introduction of additional resources to the unit. In addition, investigations into incidents of domestic violence are expected to be further enhanced via the establishment of the Union County Family Justice Center, housed at the new Family Courthouse building currently under construction in downtown Elizabeth, tentatively scheduled to open in early 2017.
In order to further address the issue, the prosecutor’s office has been revamped and has expanded the role of its Domestic Violence Unit.“With legal counsel, social services and logistical support provided to victims through this model of care, investigations into these incidents are expected to become fully holistic in their approach,” said Park. “We will be spending much of the current year preparing for the opening of the Justice Center by ensuring that the proper resources, personnel and mechanisms are in place to support the model.”
Park believes that awareness of the problem is an important step toward solving it. “Raising awareness is a huge part of it,” said Park. “At this year’s symposium we addressed the fact that, on average, 15 to 20 percent of all homicides occurring in Union County are connected to domestic violence. That is an unacceptable trend. And correcting it begins with people everywhere, every day, finding the courage to speak up about it. One question to a colleague, one comment to a friend, one phone call to the police — any of these could literally mean the difference between life and death for a victim of domestic abuse.”
Park says that the Victim/Witness Unit is skilled in dealing with domestic violence. “Our Office’s Victim/Witness Unit is solely dedicated to work of this precise nature, providing assistance and education to victims of domestic violence and other crimes,” said Park. “Many of those who attend the symposium each year work with victims every day, and they routinely share their experiences with them.”
Park says that the way to approach the issue is to treat every domestic violence case reported to her office with the utmost care, ensuring that victims are protected and perpetrators are held fully accountable for their actions. “I believe that each and every member of our Domestic Violence Unit is personally dedicated to doing just that every day,” said Park. “As you can see from the statistics, this is clearly a statewide issue, and regardless of short-term trends, we believe it must be addressed at all levels of law enforcement, from municipal police departments on up.”
The YWCA of Union County is the lead domestic violence agency in Union County. They offer emergency shelter, counseling, assistance with housing and employment counseling, along with case managers on staff to help connect women to social services programs. Their staff attorney, who specializes in domestic violence, is there to assist women with navigating the legal system, court advocacy and legal representation. The agency also offers a Workforce Developmental Program that helps prepare women for careers through their computer lab and learning workshops, and even provides thumb drives for victims who may be unable to get to their local libraries. In addition, the YWCA acts as a liaison to Child Protective Services and offers a program called PALS, a creative arts therapy program for children who have been exposed to domestic violence. Their 24-hour hotline is there to help victims any time of the day or night.
“Our goal for these victims is independence,” Lilien said.
In 2013, Union County saw 3,048 reported cases of domestic violence, down from 3,215 the previous year.