'Speaking of Women': Shedding light on domestic violence

 

Significant strides have been made over the last four decades when it comes to addressing sexual and domestic violence, including the recent establishment of Connecticut’s first family justice organization, the Center for Family Justice. At the center’s annual “Speaking of Women” luncheon, held at the Waterview restaurant in Monroe on Sept. 18, keynote speaker Linda Fairstein provided attendees with an overview of just how far the country has come, and how much more needs to be accomplished.

Pictured at the “Speaking of Women” luncheon, hosted by the Center for Family Justice: Debra A. Greenwood of Monroe, president and CEO of the center; Kerry Dalling, Fairfield Police Department detective; Alex Fucci and Antonio Granata, Fairfield Police Department; keynote speaker Linda Fairstein; and Fred Hine, Anthony Vaspasiano and Peter Koval, Fairfield Police Department.

Pictured at the “Speaking of Women” luncheon, hosted by the Center for Family Justice: Debra A. Greenwood of Monroe, president and CEO of the center; Kerry Dalling, Fairfield Police Department detective; Alex Fucci and Antonio Granata, Fairfield Police Department; keynote speaker Linda Fairstein; and Fred Hine, Anthony Vaspasiano and Peter Koval, Fairfield Police Department.

In addition to Fairstein, the luncheon featured a number of speakers, including Center for Family Justice president and CEO Debra Greenwood, first lady of Connecticut Cathy Malloya, and a domestic violence survivor who was simply referred to as “Patty.”

During her speech, Malloy, who led a sexual assault crisis center for a decade, said the state needed more family justice centers because they provide all the resources domestic violence victims need under one roof.

“I’ve also been working on this particular initiative for three years, making sure that this family justice center is up and running next year and that this is a model for the entire state of Connecticut,” Malloy said. “The beauty and the power of establishing the first family justice center in Connecticut means … individuals young and old, men and women, can come into our center and tell us whatever they want … . They’re not going to be judged, they’re going to feel a sense of safety and support, and that’s really what we’re trying to achieve.”

Speakers also presented attendees with statistics, compiled by the Center for Family Justice, to provide a sense of how many individuals in the country are victims of sexual and domestic violence: one in three women will experience physical violence, rape and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime; one in 10 men will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime; two in three women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime; and one in four victims of intimate partner violence are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Fairstein, the event’s final speaker, is one of America’s foremost legal experts on crimes of violence against women and children. For 26 years, she was chief of the pioneering sex crimes prosecution unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, and in that position supervised the investigation and trial of Manhattan cases involving sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse and homicides. In addition, Fairstein is the author of an internationally best-selling series of crime novels featuring the fictional Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper.

As someone who has fought domestic violence for 42 years, Fairstein said she has seen drastic changes in the way the matter is handled both in the court system and in society.

Just a few short decades ago, Fairstein said, “When you met about sexual assault or domestic violence, it was in a basement, it was in a dark room, it was in a place without windows, it was in the back corner of somebody’s office.” To be part of a convention such as the “Speaking of Women” luncheon, where people speak openly about the issue in the presence of hundreds of others, she said, is something to “celebrate.” And while there is a long way to go, there have been “enormous strides” for domestic abuse victims over the last four decades.

In the 70s, Fairstein worked tirelessly, along with other attorneys around the country, to lobby for changes in what she described as “archaic” laws that were based on 17th-Century concepts. At that time, the word of a woman was legally insufficient to take her into a courtroom and charge a man for rape, Fairstein said. The crime is the least likely offense to be witnessed by someone else, yet the law in every state required a person aside from the victim to identify the attacker in order for the charge to hold water, she said. In addition, proof of the sexual nature of the attack had to be provided at a time when medical examiners did not yet know how to triage victims and evidence collection kits did not yet exist. Finally, proof of force had to be provided — meaning a weapon had to be recovered or the victim had to show proof of injury. All three pieces of evidence were required in order to convict a rapist, Fairstein said. In fact, she said, in 1972, 1,000 men in New York City’s five boroughs were arrested for sexual assault. Only 18 of those men were tried and convicted.

While progress was made and attention was given to the country’s sexual assault problem in the 70s and 80s, domestic violence at the time remained “the stepchild of these issues within the movement,” Fairstein said. Americans didn’t see it as “their issue,” she added.

At that time, a typical assault case required both parties involved in the incident to go before a judge because domestic violence was considered a family matter, Fairstein said. For example, she said, if a strange man struck a woman with a pot, the crime would be considered felony assault and the courts would have no problem putting the attacker behind bars. If a husband committed the same act against his wife, the court’s typical response would be that the incident was “only a domestic,” to be handled privately amongst the couple. The judge would advise the pair to work it out between themselves, then have an officer walk the husband around the block a few times to cool him off before sending him back home, Fairstein said. To make matters worse, she said, there were no shelters for domestic violence victims and very little advocacy was available. Further, the “lethality” factor that derives from domestic violence was not considered.

Resources for domestic violence victims, as well as laws that protect them, have expanded enormously over the last two decades, Fairstein said. But the battle is far from over. In recent weeks, Fairstein said, the nation has closely watched the NFL scandal involving Ray Rice, a football player who was captured on video knocking his then-fiancée out cold in an elevator. During that same time period, however, another equally disturbing story broke, she said.

Federal Judge Mark Fuller and his wife were recently staying at the Atlanta Ritz Carlton Hotel when Fuller’s wife accused him of having an affair, which was later reportedly found to be true. In response, Fuller allegedly beat his wife “to a pulp” in the couple’s hotel room, then proceeded to drag her around the room by her hair in an attempt to keep her from calling the police, Fairstein said. When the woman had the strength to get to the phone, she called 911 and Fuller was arrested. Despite the brutal attack, however, Fuller has been given “a sweetheart of a plea deal” and is expected to return to his position as a federal judge very shortly, Fairstein said. Such incidents prove that the country has a long way to go in terms of providing true justice for domestic violence victims, she said.

A critical part of reducing and eliminating domestic violence in the United States is early education, Fairstein said. Children should learn at a young age what constitutes a healthy relationship and what is unacceptable. Fortunately, she said, places like the Center for Family Justice provide programs that speak directly to the importance of education and prevention. The center, she said, is turning victims’ crises into confidence — “a huge victory in a war that seems to have no boundaries.”

To learn more about the Family Justice Center and the services it provides, visit cwfefc.org.

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