A Not for Profit Providing Local Support to Victims of Domestic Violence & Human Trafficking
It’s a non-descript building in downtown White Plains steps from the Metro-North station but for people served by the non-profit My Sisters’ Place (MSP), it is a beacon of hope. It is a safe haven where victims of domestic violence (DV) and human trafficking can finally begin to change their lives.
Founded more than 40 years ago, MSP offers residential, support and legal services for victims of abuse and trafficking. The non-profit also offers educational and preventative programs for students in middle school and high school. In addition, MSP advocates for legislation protecting victims and provides training for healthcare professionals and law enforcement personnel. In short, MSP is a comprehensive agency that provides direct services, legislative advocacy, and prevention education to 15,000 people a year in Westchester County.
Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the US and up to 10 million children witness some form of domestic violence annually.1 Although 84% of the victims of abuse and human trafficking that MSP helped last year were female, they also provide services to a small percentage of men or transgender individuals. Last year MSP provided counseling to 130 children and emergency housing for more than 175 adults and children at two confidential full-service shelters located in Westchester.
There is a misconception that both domestic violence and human trafficking don’t happen in affluent communities but these problems cut across socioeconomic levels, notes Karen Cheeks-Lomax, the CEO of MSP. When they do happen in affluent communities, they are widely sensationalized in the media such as the brutal stabbing of Scarsdale pediatrician, Dr. Robin Goldman, by her husband Jules Reich, a well-respected tax attorney, and a human trafficking and sex slave ring discovered in Pound Ridge-based author Joseph Yannai’s basement.
Judy Dobles, a Chappaqua-based volunteer for the past six years with MSP, knows all too well that domestic violence doesn’t discriminate. As a volunteer in the ‘Sisters in Law’ program, she has accompanied MSP clients to court, solely for the purpose of supporting the victim as much as possible.
“Whether that’s talking or just sitting quietly by their side, if they don’t want to talk, shielding them from having to see their abuser before going in to the courtroom, and basically just trying to keep them as calm as possible before they have to go in before the judge,” explains Dobles. She recalls one of her first “accompaniments” with a very educated, successful client who had had a lucrative career and came from an affluent background. “It was difficult to connect that information with the broken person I saw before me.”
Still Dobles finds this type of volunteerism rewarding. “It’s rewarding when a client walks into a courtroom or magistrate’s room and can answer questions calmly and succinctly. It’s really rewarding when they exit the room with a smile because they feel like they are being heard and they’re not alone. Also, as a huggy/feely person myself, I would say that 99% of the time, my clients and I hug goodbye–and I feel truly honored to get those hugs.”
Expanding the Definition of Domestic Violence
“Domestic violence doesn’t fit in a box,” notes Cheeks-Lomax. Danielle DiNapoli, a community educator in MSP’s Domestic Violence Education and Prevention (DVEP) program which educates more than 5,000 middle and high school students a year. She explains that it is “not just physical abuse. It is an intentional pattern of behaviors where one person is gaining and maintaining control over another. It can be financial, mental, cyber or spiritual/cultural abuse.”
DiNapoli also teaches the students about warning signs in a relationship that may lead to abuse further down the road. Extreme possessiveness, jealousy, isolating the victim from family/friends or checking in at the person’s place of work or showing up at social outings to which they are not invited are all potential warning signs. It can also be verbal abuse such as putting a partner down or controlling what they eat or wear.
For high school students, DiNapoli states that 1 in 3 have been involved in an abusive relationship.2 They may feel particularly afraid to discuss it with an adult because their parents, she points out, might not even know about the relationship or forbid dating. Gabriella Ibacache, a children’s counselor at MVP points out that the abuse may start off as very small or subtle and the abuser may manipulate their partner by apologizing or buying them gifts.
DiNapoli wants students to understand that the power and control that we see in society can trickle down into our relationships. “By the time I’m seeing them [the kids may be 11 or 12 years old], and this is the first time that they are talking about these issues, and that’s a real problem. We need to be teaching kids how they should be treated and treat one another at a much earlier age,” explained DiNapoli.
When DiNapoli talks to high school students, MSP provides survivor stories and they discuss warning signs, what type of abuse the survivor endured and reasons why the survivor did not leave. “A lot of the kids ask, ‘why didn’t the victim just leave?’ People tend to shame and blame the victim for not leaving,” said DiNapoli. But on average, DiNapoli says it takes the victim seven attempts before she leaves permanently. And when the victim does decide to leave for good, it is the most dangerous time for that person. They could be seriously harmed or killed. “So much of what we do at MSP is “safety plan” –figuring out the safest way to leave, and that’s not the same for every person, and can change daily due to new salient factors,” explains Cheeks-Lomax.
Ibacache notes that the barriers to leaving can still be just as hard even when the victim is affluent. When children are in the mix, the danger increases significantly warns Ibacache.
Human Trafficking: It Does Happen Here
For more than a decade, MSP has been helping victims of human trafficking and last year helped 85 survivors of human trafficking. In New York State, there were 942 victims identified by social service providers and law enforcement in 2016. Of the victims, 82% were for sex trafficking purposes and 18% were for labor trafficking with 27% of the victims being minors. 43% are citizens from other countries and 57% are residents of New York from outside the five boroughs.3
Housing, Public Transportation & Immigration Status: A Trifecta of Issues for Many MSP Clients
Although MSP has 60 employees and is a $6 million agency (with $1.6 million from private donors), Cheeks-Lomax notes that they are working in a sector that is very challenging. There are challenges that are unique to Westchester County such as a lack of affordable or low-income housing and public transportation for clients.
Imagine if you need to push a baby carriage to get here, notes Cheeks-Lomax. “If you don’t have safe housing, you can’t do much,” laments Cheeks-Lomax. MSP recently won a conditional award to work with Westhab, the largest developer of affordable and low-income housing in the county, and hopes to partner with them to create 17 two-bedroom apartments for MSP clients in the near future.
“Immigration status is also a huge issue. In 2009, Westchester County was not reimbursing immigrant populations at MSP. We briefed the issue as to who should be served by these federal dollars. We took it all the way up to the governor. If people couldn’t come to us, we argued that they would end up at a hospital or a drug rehab. Every single county now in New York State provides services to immigrant victims of DV and human trafficking,” Cheeks-Lomax explains triumphantly.
Cheeks-Lomax is hopeful that the #metoo movement will highlight the power dynamic that is present in domestic violence cases and raise awareness about it. “There are the same fundamentals of fear and intimidation intersecting. For us, it proves a point. It is always about power and control and the abuser does it because he/she can.” She is also looking forward to working with County Executive George Latimer, and believes MSP will make some good headway with his administration.
1. Source: dvrc-or.org
2. Source: loverespect.org
3. Source: NYS Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance Refugee Services
6 Critical Life Messages to Help a Friend
If you believe a friend is in an abusive situation, these are the ‘messages’ that the staff at My Sisters’ Place say she or he needs to hear. “It is important not to “revictimize” the person who has been abused,” notes Cheeks-Lomax. All of these messages validate the person’s experience instead of shaming or blaming the victim.
- I believe in you.
- I trust you.
- I know you can handle it.
- You are listened to.
- You are cared for.
- You are very important to me.
Source: My Sisters’ Place Domestic Violence Education and Prevention Program