N.J. lawmakers get insights on domestic violence issues during meeting with survivors, experts

BY MARY DIDUCH |THE RECORD

ROCHELLE PARK — Recurring homelessness. Issues with child care. Struggles to secure a job. Lack of funds.

These were a handful of issues that domestic violence experts and survivors raised to New Jersey state legislators Tuesday afternoon at the Center for Hope and Safety in Rochelle Park, during a roundtable discussion on how legislation can help such victims get back on their feet.

State Sens. Loretta Weinberg, Stephen Sweeney and Robert Gordon, and Assemblywoman Valerie Vanieri Huttle listened to the survivors and workers in domestic violence — many from the shelter or county agencies — about what needs to be done to break the cycle of domestic violence and help victims stand on their own.

 

The issue has gained more national attention after several high-profile cases of domestic abuse in the National Football League. Earlier this month, Weinberg and other state legislators from both parties and houses held a press conference outside MetLife Stadium to call on the NFL to further address domestic violence among its players.

Sweeney said a lot of the news has focused on the abuser and what has happened to them. But at the state and local level, attention needs to be paid to what happens to victims after a domestic violence incident.

“The point is, what happens after?” Sweeney said. “How do you restore normalcy to people’s lives?”

Several of the staffers from the center — formerly known as Shelter our Sisters — pointed not only to a lack of funds going toward domestic violence assistance, but toward processes that many victims find discouraging when trying to secure their own independence.

Many of the center’s women often find themselves going back to abusers or living on the street, unable to break a violent cycle. Some vouchers for subsidized housing do not allow victims to stay in transitional housing for more than two years — often not enough time for  most to become self-sufficent.

“They’re cutting them off right in the middle of what they’re trying to do,” said Mary Ann Ploppert, the center’s director of transitional housing.

Other victims feel forced to choose between continuing to receive government aid and finding a job. For example, a victim needs to provide four pay stubs to earn child care assistance, but it is difficult for them to find work when they need to watch their kids.

Marina Rodriguez, who has been a client at the center for a year and a half, said she struggled to find a job while also trying to secure care for her children. Though she eventually found one, she said the process was daunting.

“I’m still having a hard time now,” Rodriguez said. “It’s the hardest thing for me.”

Patrice Lenowitz, a community educator at the shelter, said many of these issues also need to be addressed in the courts. She said domestic violence experts need to be in family court rooms to help judges and lawyers make decisions.

“Our family courts are failing them from the outset,” Lenowitz said.

Susan DeJackmo, assistant director of Alternatives to Domestic Violence, a division of the county’s Department of Human Services, said legal professionals often do not have the proper domestic violence training to help victims in these cases, often harming more than helping.

“You’re putting more people at risk,” DeJackmo said.

Sweeney said some states have domestic violence courts to handle the special nature of the cases, just as there are special drug courts to handle drug-related crimes. He said the state sees around 40,000 domestic violence cases a year alone, though that does not account for all the unreported instances that occur.

Huttle said after the discussion that it is important to hear from the center and clients to learn what is broken in the system and how to help victims get back on their feet. Whether it’s by securing more training for judges and social service workers or raising the criminality for those who trespass at domestic violence shelters — another problem pointed out by the workers that the assemblywoman said already is under way — Huttle said there are numerous layers to domestic violence that need to be addressed.

“This is really an issue of severe consequences,” Huttle said.

Email: diduch@northjersey.com