Panel discusses ending cycle of domestic violence

Domestic violence used to be the embarrassing secret that no one spoke about. Hidden behind closed doors, it ravaged lives and ripped families apart. Few outsiders knew it was going on, let alone what to do about it.

These days, domestic violence and its cousin, sexual assault, have been exposed in lurid headlines about NFL players and celebrities abusing their girlfriends and in some cases, even their children. Victims are talking openly and learning they are not alone.

The NFL has responded to incidents of domestic violence by players with, among other things, the No More campaign, in which players tell the public, “Together we can end domestic violence and sexual assault.”

Domestic violence happens all over the world, in every culture, setting and relationship. Victims and perpetrators defy stereotypes, especially that victims are helpless or weak, according to Detective Kerry Dalling of the Fairfield Police Department.

“Victims and survivors are among the strongest people I have ever met,” Detective Dalling said. “They must go it alone and come up with a plan. They have to be incredibly strong. Children are often involved.”

Detective Dalling was among a panel of experts who met on a recent Sunday afternoon at the Fairfield Public Library to let people know how to recognize the signs of domestic violence and what to do to stop it. The Barnard Club of Connecticut and the Fairfield Public Library sponsored the event.

Perpetrators of domestic violence likewise defy stereotypes. They may be the leader of a community, a professor, a police officer — someone in any walk of life — rich, poor, and from every racial and ethnic group.

“Perpetrators share a common trait: Control and power over another individual,” said Debra Greenwood, president and CEO of the Center for Family Justice, another panelist. “Perpetrators gain power and control through manipulation and threatening: ‘I won’t give you money; I will make your life hell,’” are some of the ways they make their threats, she said.

The other panelists were attorney Uswah A. Khan of Fairfield Family Law LLC in Norwalk and state Sen. Tony Hwang, R-28th District, representing Fairfield, Easton, Weston, Westport, and Newtown. Barnard Club President Selena Kuo McCaul facilitated the discussion.

State Rep. Laura Devlin, R-134th District, who represents Fairfield and Trumbull, also participated in the interactive discussion.

The Center for Family Justice in Bridgeport is based on a model of service that originated in San Diego in 2002 and is the first of its kind in Connecticut, serving Easton, Bridgeport, Trumbull, Monroe, Fairfield, and Stratford.

“In our building, 22 agencies have signed on to help victims become self-sufficient,” Ms. Greenwood said.

All of the services are under one roof, so that victims don’t have to search or travel to access the services they need. The center has satellite offices in Fairfield, Trumbull, Monroe, and Stratford, and victims can go to any of the offices or call the domestic violence hotline 24/7. Help is available to victims everywhere, not just to people who live in the towns in the center’s service area.

“The most dangerous time is when the victim decides to leave,” Ms. Greenwood said. “No one should ever underestimate how dangerous a time it can be. People can call the hotline or stop by. Walk-ins are always welcome; they don’t need an appointment. The center’s highly trained advocates are here to help.”

When a breakup is about to happen, center staff try to get victims through the door to protect them. “By talking about the issues, we are going to save a life,” she said.

It might take seven to 10 tries before a victim finally leaves the abuser, she said. On the journey of healing, the center may send her or him to an undisclosed safe house.

“Safe houses save lives,” Ms. Greenwood said. “In 50% of cases, people leave in the middle of the night. Advocates help with safety planning and counsel them to bring such things as birth certificates and medicine.”

Connecticut has 18 safe houses, and they are 90% full at all times, she said. Survivors typically stay 60 days or so; some may stay as long as a year or more. The center is seeing more male victims and puts them up in sanctioned hotels when the need arises, Ms. Greenwood said.

The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act provides the funding, standards and protection for everyone who needs help, including undocumented individuals who are victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. No person in the United States can be denied benefits to any program or activity made available under the act based on national origin.

Federal and state laws provide protection for all survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse, regardless of the individual’s country of origin, citizenship or immigration status. Sometimes the center will move a victim to another state or country to keep the person safe.

“No one ever gets put back on the street,” Ms Greenwood said. “Standards and laws protect them, although we can’t mandate them to stay.”

Funding is supplied through state and federal sources, but to go above and beyond, the center relies on fund-raising and volunteers, which it highly values, she said.

When police respond, one of the mandates is to notify victims of services, Detective Dalling said. Another mandate is that they must make an arrest if they see evidence of a crime.

In addition to calling or visiting the Center for Family Justice, concerned parties may go to the Fairfield Senior Center every Wednesday night to get advice, Detective Dalling said. She attends the weekly sessions with the support of Fairfield police Chief Gary McNamara, who is nationally known for his work to prevent domestic violence.

“We have a very progressive chief,” Detective Dalling said.

“Moving away from domestic violence takes a lot of determination,” Mr. Hwang said. “People have to be willing to move away from the suffering they know to make a change that’s better for everyone. It takes a huge, concerted effort.”

As an attorney, Ms. Khan said, she gets involved after a woman has been on the receiving end of violence and is seeking a restraining order or divorce as a result of being in fear of imminent harm.

“The court can help them get away, but they need lots of counseling and support to begin a new life,” she said. She refers victims to the Domestic Violence Crisis Center in Norwalk. Now that she knows more about the Center for Family Justice, she will refer people there, too, she said.

A man in the audience asked how domestic violence can be stopped when violence is so pervasive in American culture.

“We’re giving up a Sunday to share the message,” Mr. Hwang said. “Football, which is incredibly violent, is the most popular visual event in America. We can still enjoy the game, but there has to be zero tolerance of domestic violence, even if it involves a football star. We can all take a step to be part of the solution.”

Ms. Kuo McCaul agreed with the comment that domestic violence is pervasive in our culture and a solution won’t happen overnight. “We’re having this discussion and talking about it,” she said.

Mr. Hwang said he supports programs in Hartford such as anti-bullying awareness and sensitivity to help kids break the cycle of violence and fully supports the Center for Family Justice, with its one-stop services under one roof.

He urged the public to contact their legislators and ask them to support the Center for Family Justice and other agencies working to prevent domestic violence. He also suggested they let their local officials know how important it is to support satellite offices.

“Your voice is huge,” Ms. Devlin said. “Don’t underestimate the power of one voice.”

Mr. Hwang said he learns more every time he attends events such as this.

“If each person here asks 10 people to find out more, we can make a difference,” he said. “The education I have gotten makes me an advocate.”

Barnard alumna Viviane Kaneff asked what people can do in big and small ways to make a difference.

Beth Andrews, volunteer coordinator for the Center for Women and Families, said volunteers add immeasurably to the services offered. Whether it’s holding an event, such as a gathering to raise money, or stuffing envelopes, or answering the hotline, opportunities abound.

Some volunteer positions, such as the hotline, require training, which the center provides. “We turn no one away,” she said.


An audience member asked if society raises boys to be violent and whether it’s possible for perpetrators to change.

Ms. Greenwood said that 98% of men are “good guys” who are respectful of women, It’s the other 2% that cause the trouble.

“How we raise our boys matters,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do. We need to work to make it happen.”

The White Ribbon campaign is one of the ways that area men are stepping up to say no to violence. Events such as “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” help raise awareness.

Detective Dalling said there are good diversionary programs for perpetrators that work. They often include drug and alcohol counseling and anger management. A teamwork approach is effective, she said. Ms. Khan said she sees justice for both sides, the victim and the perpetrator, in the Connecticut judicial system.

Ms. Kuo McCaul asked if there was any follow-up to see if the programs are working long-term.

Detective Dalling and Ms. Greenwood said people have moved on after going through the integrated family violence programs that are available to families and children.

“We have seen very positive outcomes,” Ms. Greenwood said.

Barnard alumna Carol Christiaanse asked about services for people who are disabled and non-verbal, such as those with autism or who are aged.

“Disabled and elderly people are the most vulnerable,” she said.

“We’re victim advocates,” Ms. Greenwood said. “Our job is to believe the victims.”

She said that helping disabled people is near and dear to her and something the center takes very seriously.

“I was beat up by my boyfriend when I was in college,” a Barnard alumna in the audience said. “Everyone who knows me knows I’m no shrinking violent. He was a varsity athlete. This can happen to anyone.”

“There is no acceptable excuse, no reason for domestic violence,” Ms. Kuo McCaul said.

Ms. Greenwood said that one out of four women and a smaller number of men will be subject to domestic violence in their lifetime.”

The Center for Family Justice provides free, confidential trauma-informed services and coordinates care for victims and survivors of any age, race and gender affected by domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. It offers education and training to create social change to break the cycle of violence, build healthy relationships, stop bullying, and end teen dating violence.

To learn more services, volunteering or the White Ribbon Campaign, visit or call the center’s main number, 203-334-6154.

The domestic abuse hotline, 203-384-9559, and the sexual assault hotline, 203-333-2233, are available seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Since its founding in 1889, Barnard College, which is part of Columbia University, has been a leader in higher education, offering a rigorous liberal arts foundation to young women in the heart of New York City.  Nancy Doniger is a board member of the Barnard College Club of Connecticut.