November 29, 2006

Behind Closed Doors Domestic Violence Escalates on the East End

Veronica* lives in East Hampton with her 11-year-old daughter, Samantha*. She is a well-heeled, college-educated professional who runs her own business and owns a spacious East End home. And yet, for years, she lived in fear behind closed doors as her husband abused her verbally and physically, choking her and throwing her out of a moving car. The violence escalated one Christmas Eve, over five years ago, when Veronica's husband threatened her and their child with a loaded gun.

At first glance, Veronica seems the unlikeliest of victims. Well-spoken and immaculately coiffed, she is the epitome of the East End success story — the type of woman, one might believe, who could never be touched by the horror of domestic abuse. And yet, Veronica is not alone. She is one of a growing number of East End women who, crippled by fear and hiding in the shadows of multi-million dollar mansions and trailer parks alike, are victims of an insidious social trend that cuts a wide swath through all socioeconomic and class lines— domestic violence.

The notion that abuse can't happen in the homes of the most wealthy and privileged, said Veronica, is a grave misconception. "I can't tell you how many people I know in this situation. They live in million-dollar homes, drive Mercedes and BMWs, and their husbands are hanging them over the balconies."

Veronica, who has tried to urge one victim to break free of the abuse, said her friend refuses to leave. "One day, I'm not going to be able to help her. One day, he's going to kill her." Veronica said the couple epitomizes the height of Hamptons glitterati, but hides a dark secret. "She's still with him because it's a sickness. You get beaten down, literally."

Veronica speaks from experience. The warning signs flashed when her fiancé, who came from a law enforcement family, was arrested after he was spotted driving erratically. When he was drinking and drugging, "It was like nothing I'd ever seen. It was as if he was Jekyll and Hyde. He was an animal. It was like poison in his system."

Frightened, Veronica threatened to call off the wedding. "He stormed out of the room and said he was going to set me on fire."

But, like so many women, Veronica was young and in love. "He told me he couldn't survive without me. I was 22 — it was my own insanity."

Veronica married her man and lived a life of increasing desperation. "It's a slow process. They break you down. You end up having no boundaries, until your perception of reality is gone. He makes you think you're crazy — you start to question yourself."

Although Veronica ultimately divorced her husband, the nightmare continued, until the fateful Christmas Eve when he threatened her and her child with a gun and the police were called. "I thought, 'This is the stuff that Oprah's made of — he's going to shoot me and my baby.'"

Veronica filed for an order of protection. Sitting in Riverhead Civil Court, she was plagued by anxiety. "I thought, 'I'm educated, have a great job, a beautiful daughter — I don't belong here. I am not one of these people.'"

When she was met by a legal advocate from The Retreat, an East Hampton-based organization licensed by New York State to provide free domestic violence services, Veronica's life changed. "I hung on to her as though I was five years old. I was scared to death, and she told me it was going to be okay."

According to Tracy Lutz, executive director of The Retreat, domestic violence is a growing menace on the East End, and Veronica's story is far from unique. Many women find themselves trapped in abusive relationships by men who strip them of their self-esteem. Many women who seek assistance at The Retreat find themselves starting out with nothing: "They've either never had a job or a checking account, or they've had them taken away. Little by little, their abusers keep picking and picking away until the women wake up one morning and ask, 'Who am I? How did I get here? I used to be this strong person, but now I'm dependent on him for everything.'"

One thing is certain: Victims of domestic violence locally are not alone. The Retreat, a non-profit organization founded in 1998 to provide safety, shelter and support for domestic violence victims, includes a shelter that provides housing for 18 women and children with a 90-day length of stay.

In 2005, the shelter occupancy rate was 86 percent. And, although that number is 4 percent lower than in 2004, the reason is due, in part, to extension in length of stay directly related to the lack of affordable housing on the East End. With lack of affordable housing reaching crisis proportions, victims stay longer and decrease the turnover rate.

Also in 2005, The Retreat provided approximately 4680 counseling services and approximately 1170 legal advocacy services, more than double the number in 2004, as well as responded to 2998 hotline calls.

Countywide, the numbers reflect the growing trend. According to the Suffolk County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, about 100 domestic violence incidents are reported each day in Suffolk County. In 2002, there were 37,590 domestic violence reports processed.

Nationwide, on average, more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends every day. And, in a 2002, report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 44 percent of the cities surveyed identified domestic violence as the primary cause of homelessness.

According to a 2000 Yale Law Journal report, domestic violence is thought to be more prevalent among immigrant women than U.S. citizens.

According to Briana Hofer, MSW, program director and director of counseling, education, VAST and residential services for the Suffolk County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the greatest misconception is that domestic violence is a problem plaguing only lower-income families. "It crosses all boundaries, affects everyone."

Culture sometimes plays a role, she added. "In some Latino families, the man is the boss. If he has to hit you to get you to listen, that could be deemed common, because it happens in other families you know. It could affect whether they'll report the incident as domestic violence."

And, while no ethnicity studies have been done to pinpoint abusers, it is a fact that the amount of domestic violence cases has increased on the East End as the population continues to swell, a population comprised in large numbers of Latinos.

To meet the growing need, The Retreat offers services including a 24-hour hotline, legal advocacy, counseling, police department incident report response, community education/outreach, an in-school education/prevention program, a batterer's intervention group, crime victims' claim assistance and an emergency shelter.

Veronica, like so many women, faces the fear of passing along a pattern of abuse to future generations. Because she is still in close contact with her ex-husband, she fears the haunting legacy she has left her child. "I've done the one thing I wanted to avoid. I've turned her into me."

The names, dates and locations of the victims have been changed for their own protection.

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