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Trying to address domestic violence

Officials pledge to combat problem, but county lacks batterer programs

Maria Potoczniak of Jersey CIty posted this photo of her 4-year-old boy on Facebook eight months before her ex-boyfriend allegedly strangled her and smothered the boy, their son. The suspect was caught by police days later and he pleaded not guilty.

In a 911 call in February of 2018, Lydiah Okongo of Jersey City asked a police dispatcher what to do if she was being threatened. According to a report, she said, “I walk through the door; he’s telling me how he’s upset with me and the only thing he’s going to do is just kill me and kill all of us, and we’re going to be transported to Africa in a coffin.”

Less than a month later, Jersey City police responded to the 40-year-old woman’s home and found her shot to death, according to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office. Husband Henry Okongo was also found dead with a gunshot wound to his head, an apparent suicide. A 3-year-old and 1-year-old child were in the house.

This Jersey City domestic violence case was not the only such tragedy in that town. In the last five years, several wives and girlfriends have been murdered by their husbands in that city. In one case, a man allegedly killed his girlfriend and their 4-year-old boy.

The Centers for Disease Control say there are ways to combat domestic violence in American culture, sometimes before it rises to the point of a violent crime.

However, some law enforcement agencies fail to implement those types of programs, instead reacting only after crimes have occurred.

Hudson County is not among those in New Jersey that receives funding for batterer intervention, and could use more resources in general, advocates said.

Recent cases

Domestic violence incidents in Hudson County have been rising slightly. According to New Jersey State Police records from 2015, Hudson County had an increase in domestic violence homicides, with five, up from four the prior year.

Nationwide, according to the non-profit Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., more than 1,600 women were murdered by a man they knew in 2016. Of those, 962 were murdered by a husband, ex-husband, or current boyfriend. These numbers are on the rise, when they had previously been falling for years.

Advocates for victims say the problem has to be tackled in different ways: With more effective laws related to restraining orders, with more education in the community – especially in cultures in which men view women as “property” and become enraged if they say no – and with changing the culture of how women are treated in general.

Programs to address that culture in Hudson County have been virtually absent, despite a >>CDC report last year<< (click link to read) suggesting initiatives to do so.

A forum organized by county officials last year regarding domestic violence — held during October (Domestic Violence Awareness Month) — only focused on teaching the abuse victims to “love themselves,” according to a news report, rather than addressing the abusers’ behavior as well.

Women Rising

Each county usually has their own state designated domestic violence program, said Jonaileen Coughlan, director for WomenRising, the non-profit program in Jersey City that is designated to help victims in Hudson County. “We are the only one here,” Coughlan said.

The organization has been helping female domestic violence victims and their families for over 100 years. It offers supportive counseling, crisis intervention, and shelter for victims, empowering them to improve their living situations. Last year, WomenRising counseled 1,399 women and families, and relocated 89 of those women and children to safe living spaces.

Last year, WomenRising counseled 1,399 women and families, relocating 89 women and children to safe living spaces.

The group also offered legal option consultation to 1,232 women. Its domestic violence response team responded to 361 victims in 2017.

What about the assailants?

But as far as addressing those who batter, rather than those who have been battered, not as much has been done in Hudson County.

A search on the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence web page shows that of the four counties the state’s DCF awarded funding to in 2013 for them to establish batterer intervention programs, Hudson County is not included. Hudson also is not included in a list of counties with current programs.

“There’s not a lot of good services for men who batter,” Coughlan said. “There’s no new funding for that to do that type of work. It’s – I’m going to assume – very tough work to do.”

Judges will often send assailants who have attacked their lovers to anger management training.

But there’s a strong difference between anger management and batterer prevention, she argues.

“If this person had an issue with anger management, they would punch their boss in the face,” Coughlan said, not just intimidate a partner.

She believes there needs to be better batterer prevention services in the county. Batterers also need to take responsibility for their actions, she added. “The accountability is the biggest piece.”

That raises an important question as to why domestic violence discourse oftentimes leaves out what assailants should do, or how to combat a culture of violence before it gets worse.

At a forum co-hosted by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s office a year ago October, State Sen. Sandra Cunningham mentioned that victims need to be taught to “love themselves” so they won’t tolerate abuse.

According to a report in Hudson County View, abuse survivors talked about their experiences being held captive and trying to recover, but the story didn’t indicate that anything was being done in the community to change the culture or the abusers.

Cunningham’s office also did not respond to six months’ of requests for comment about the forum or the issues, both by phone and then by social media.

The prosecutors have talked to local hairdressers about what to do if a client tells them about being abused.

Nevertheless, Coughlan said Cunningham is a “staunch advocate for Women Rising and victims of domestic violence,” who conducts a yearly luncheon for victims.

Defining domestic violence

Coughlan describes domestic violence as a “pattern of control,” where someone asserts power over another. Its defining characteristics are control and fear, she said.

Domestic violence can extend to include other types of abuse, including financial abuse (controlling their partner’s access to money), slowly cutting off the person’s relationships with family, emotional abuse, and sexual assault.

It can also include abuse of a family member. Last year, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office charged a Bayonne man with stabbing his mother to death in their apartment complex.

When discussing domestic violence, Coughlan said she usually presents it as a “he and she,” because most reported domestic violence cases in the county are men assaulting women.

“That’s what the statistics are,” she said. “It’s just easier that way, when you’re having a conversation.” She adds, however, that other domestic violence types, including a woman abusing a man, are “absolutely” under-reported, due to fear of public humiliation.

Challenges for survivors

She said that stressors such as religion and financial instability can influence abusive behavior in some people, and inspire fear in some victims against leaving.

There are other factors that make it harder for victims to get assistance, not just in Hudson County, but statewide, Coughlan added. State welfare programs have endured steady declines over the years. These include assistance for people at immediate risk of being homeless, a too common situation for women fleeing domestic violence, Coughlan said.

According to the think tank New Jersey Police Perspective, such funding has declined 50 percent since the 2015 fiscal year.

“Most of the people that we see, it’s a one-income household,” Coughlan said. “So when they leave, they don’t have anything.”

And some people blame the victims, when it’s often difficult to leave such a situation, especially if the person leaving has to also protect children or pets.

“We always go back to, ‘Why didn’t she leave? Why didn’t she call the police?’” Coughlan said. “It’s not putting onus on him—what can we do to stop him from battering?”

“Some of these women have never written a check before.” — Jonaileen Coughlan

Helping victims

Women Rising has advocates in the Brennan Courthouse at 595 Newark Ave. to ensure that women who receive temporary or final restraining orders see Coughlan’s staff.

WR has launched an initiative in Jersey City Municipal Court with Judge Kelly Austin, who hears domestic violence cases every Friday. Women Rising’s advocate works with Austin and her prosecutor to reach out to domestic violence victims, ensuring they’re getting services and whatever help they need.

WR advocates get 50 hours of initial training, and additional training through the year.

Women Rising also has a domestic violence response team in most Hudson County municipalities, except Jersey City, Weehawken, and West New York.

The organization also does regular work with the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey City University, and Hudson County Community College.

Women Rising also trains judges and local police on how to best combat violence.

What is the county prosecutor doing?

The HCPO hosts multiple domestic violence events throughout the year. One event took place last December at the Elysian Charter School in Hoboken, in which a film on the issue was shown.

The aforementioned event featuring Cunningham was an empowerment forum titled “Women Standing Against Violence.” Another forum, held last year, featured hairdressers, because, said County Prosecutor Ray Worrall, “A lot of times, women don’t want to talk about domestic violence.” As a result, the hair salon can be a refuge for these women to discuss their experiences.

The forum itself taught hairdressers what to do when their clients are attacked.

But Worrall mentioned that it’s typically municipal police departments that investigate domestic violence cases, with the office seldom getting involved, unless the case involves other violent crimes. He declined to comment on what the office could do to combat a culture that often shields abusers.

When asked why Hudson County doesn’t have an official batterer intervention program, Worrall said he was not aware of that and needed to look further into it.

The CDC’s report on how to change the culture – including successful programs to help men get counseling without a stigma, sometimes through the workplace, and programs for high school coaches to talk to their teams about respecting women – can be found at: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/ipv-technicalpackages.pdf

Other organizations pitch in

Earlier this year, Allstate Agency owners statewide joined with others from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to secure a $253,000 grant benefiting 15 domestic violence nonprofits nationwide. One of the nonprofits is the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence, which received $48,000 to bring shelter and support services to victims.

Each October, the non-profits participate in the Purple Purse challenge, which raises funds for financial empowerment programs for domestic violence survivors. Last year, over 220 domestic violence non profits participated, including Women Rising. They raised over $4.18 million.

Such programs are crucial for helping victims, especially those with no money.

Coughlan said, “That’s an empowering thing, taking control of your own finances, when a client figures that out or makes her own money for the first time. Some of these women have never written a check before.”

Nationally known personal finance expert Suze Orman has been speaking out about financial abuse, talking about the stories of numerous women who were unable to leave relationships because their husbands took control of their credit cards or controlled the household’s finances. Her videos and interviews with these women can be found here: https://www.thehotline.org/women-breaking-free/

To get help

Women Rising can be reached at (201)-333-5700. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available at (800)-799-7233. They also can chat confidentially on-line and via text at: https://www.thehotline.org/.

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