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Bayonne establishes Domestic Violence and Mental Health Task Force

Local and state officials met with community leaders over the weekend to start the initiative

Officials and community members met at City Hall on March 12. Photos by Daniel Israel.

Following the death of Mely Vanessa Tafoya Mendoza at the hands of her husband, Black in Bayonne called for stronger social services, especially concerning domestic violence. Now, Bayonne has established a Domestic Violence and Mental Health Task Force, the outcome of an emergency meeting officials held with community leaders on March 12.

Local and state officials present included Mayor James Davis, State Senator Sandra Cunningham, State Assemblyman William Sampson, State Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, Bayonne Officer of Emergency Management Coordinator Eduardo Ferrante, and Sgt. Steven Rhodes, among others.

Community leaders involved in the meeting included: Black in Bayonne’s Camille High, Clarice High, Shaniqua Borders, and Rashad Callaway; Jaye Wilson from Melinated Moms; Patricia Jackson and Pastor Bertha Reels from Sarah’s Daughters Domestic Violence Awareness; and Margaret Adams, the Hudson County Domestic Violence Response Team Coordinator from Women Rising.

Davis said the meeting was in reaction to the recent death of Tafoya Mendoza as well as the suicide of 22-year veteran of the Bayonne Fire Department firefighter Otto Weber on March 12.

“One of the biggest issues we have right now is domestic violence and mental health,” Davis said, noting he had underscored the issue in his State of the City address. “They go hand in hand at this point. My take on it after being a police officer for 28 years is, this is a byproduct of COVID-19.”

While domestic violence and mental illness have always been issues, Davis said they have become more prevalent amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For two years, we basically told people to stay home, and don’t go out, don’t go to work, don’t socialize,” Davis said. “Mentally, that has destroyed a lot of people.”

Davis said these issues are embodied by the recent tragedies of both Tafoya Mendoza and Weber. He said he has been working with Bayonne Health Department Nurse Suzanne Cavanaugh in recent months in preparation for an increase in domestic violence or mental health related issues due to COVID-19. Despite this being an election year, Davis is looking to address the issue in the long term.

Part of addressing that would now mean the creation of a Domestic Violence and Mental Health Task Force. The Task Force would include representatives from the City of Bayonne, the Bayonne Health Department, the Bayonne Police Department, the Bayonne Fire Department, McCabe Ambulance, and a mental health professional.

Also on the Task Force would be representatives from community organizations present at the meeting  including Black in Bayonne, Sarah’s Daughters, Women Rising, and Melinated Moms.

State and local officials address community groups about domestic violence.

Addressing the issues

Davis acknowledged that domestic violence has been an issue since before COVID-19 but that the Task Force will continue to operate even after the pandemic recedes. He said that pressure needs to be kept on lawmakers to keep emergency funding coming to address the issue.

“Usually what happens is, the funding is here because we have an emergency. Then the minute they let the emergency go, all the funding disappears,” Davis said. “What we need to do is get the help from our state legislators and even yell at our federal legislators to say, ‘don’t walk away from this just because COVID is over.’ We can’t just leave behind and move forward. We need to fix the problems that were cause by COVID. It’s not just health concerns, its mental issues, and its domestic violence issues. The biggest increase we have in crime in Bayonne right now is domestic violence… Aggravated assaults are up… Over the last two years, we have seen a bump in aggravated assaults. When I had them research why, it turns out that it’s domestic violence… Aggravated assault numbers went up, even though other crimes went down.”

Davis said the issue needs to be addressed now, not when it piles up and becomes a larger problem. He said the community can help him do that now by supporting his and the Bayonne legislators’ efforts as well as the Task Force.

Camille High of Black in Bayonne was one of many community leaders at the meeting with officials.

State legislators in support

Cunningham said that while there has been a focus on mental illness in the senate, she looks to incorporate domestic violence into the fold.

“We’re putting a lot of emphasis on mental illness, and I think that’s what we need to do,” Cunningham said. “There is a link between mental illness and domestic violence, one feeds off the other and back and forth.”

Cunningham said that when she is in Trenton, she is going to see if she can expand a piece of legislation in the works in the state senate to include not only mental illness but domestic violence.

“That will be a start to make sure that there is a certain amount of money that is available on a regular basis,” Cunningham said. “I will make it part of my budget,” Davis said.

McKnight said she had cosponsored a piece of legislation that was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy earlier designating the third week in March as “Domestic Violence Services Awareness Week” in effort to raise awareness of the resources available to assist domestic violence victims and their families.

She added she worked with the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence on the legislation to heighten awareness of these services from March 20 through 26, with a panel this year on the topic as well.

Sampson, said the meeting was about the community doing the work, and noted that Davis has been working on addressing domestic violence. He added that he would do his part in the assembly to support the Task Force.

Black in Bayonne co-founders discuss domestic violence issues in Bayonne. From left to right: Clarice High, Shaniqua Borders, and Rashad Callaway.

Community leaders respond

During the discussion between officials and community leaders, High suggested utilizing the hotlines of Women Rising at 201-333-5700 and Sarah’s Daughters at 732-318-4116 for their services, or even an educational program through a partnership between the Board of Education and the city. Adams said that the program can be adjusted to any grade level to do presentations aimed to prevent domestic violence. Reels said the most important part is educating the public.

“The most important piece of all of this is information,” Reels said. “You need the information. You need to be educated on what domestic violence really is. If you do not understand what domestic violence is, you will find yourself in a relationship with somebody who is abusing you because you don’t understand what domestic violence is until it’s too late.”

Cunningham also noted it was important to consider cultural differences when approaching domestic violence, to which High and Wilson agreed. Callaway noted that the resources needed to be inclusive to men as well, and Adams added that it needed to also be inclusive to the LGBTQ+ community.

“At the end of the day, it’s not just women,” Callaway said.

“The same thing happens in the LGBTQ+ community,” Adams said.

Davis agreed and added it was important to include men because they are more hesitant to come forward.

Mely Vanessa Tafoya Mendoza

Supporting the community now

Also discussed during the meeting was increasing communication with police regarding domestic violence, police training with regards to domestic violence, how housing pertains to domestic violence, among other pertinent topics and potential solutions to those issues. Davis said the city was ahead of COVID-19 curve because he formed a Task Force in January of 2020 ahead of the onset of the pandemic and wants to do the same and get ahead of the curve of domestic violence and mental illness.

I need to do this now because COVID’s coming to an end,” Davis said. “I need to put together a task force because t that never goes away. Because this is going to be an issue forever. Our goal is to educate people, make it so they’re not afraid to come forward.”

Davis said that he hopes the Task Force inspire the county to do the same and expand it across Hudson. Borders, High, and other members of the community groups were eager to meet again soon within the next two weeks, to which Davis offered the Bayonne Community Museum on Broadway as a meeting space.

Lastly, High asked about how the Task Force could help the family of Tafoya Mendoza in the immediate future, to which Davis suggested forming an online fundraiser which he could promote.

After the meeting, High made a fundraiser at gofundme.com/f/help-bury-vanessa. Another fundraiser benefiting her children can be found online at  gofundme.com/f/contributions-for-vanes-girls.

Later, High told the Bayonne Community News: “The work has to be in the legislation. Not in conversations, not in opinions, but in legislation. This week is evidence of the power of the peoples’ voice. Legislative and administrative branches collaborated this week to advance the needs of the people in Bayonne. Thank you City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski and Mayor Jimmy Davis for putting the people above politics.”

Last week, City Council President and mayoral candidate Sharon Ashe Nadrowski introduced a resolution to allocate $25,000 in American Rescue Plan funds to support “educational, intervention, and outreach programs to combat the issue of domestic violence.” 

Black in Bayonne plans to support the resolution through a candlelight vigil at 6 p.m. before attending the next Bayonne City Council meeting at 7 p.m. on March 16 at City Hall at 630 Avenue C.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com. 

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