The statistics are staggering: One in three women in the world will experience physical abuse. Last year, there were more than 8,000 domestic violence incidents reported in Ulster and Dutchess Counties; in the past five years, seven people died in Ulster County due to domestic violence and six were killed in Dutchess County in the last 15 months.
The numbers can hardly communicate the full horror of the problem, however; for that, one must look at individual cases, each of which is heartrending. Take the murder of Tracey Ingrassio Passero, who was brutally shot by her husband in their Saugerties home in 2007 in front of their two young children. Or Jessica Welch, who was killed by her husband, Lew Welch, in 2011 in the parking lot of the Poughkeepsie Train Station in front of detective John Falcone, who was also shot to death before Welch turned the gun on himself. After witnessing the killings, the Welches’ 3-year-old daughter was left to wander the city alone before strangers could determine her identity.
“So many people like to pretend we live in a bucolic setting where it’s all rainbows and bunnies, when the reality is, it’s not,” said singer Natalie Merchant, noting that in Kingston alone there were 600 calls last year to the domestic violence hotline. Merchant first became aware of the incidences of domestic violence in the area when she attended the One Billion Rising domestic violence fundraising event in Kingston last fall and talked with the directors of two local shelters, who told her of the huge need for more resources. Merchant decided that she had to do something and came up with the idea of a benefit concert.
“Shelter: A Concert Event to Benefit Victims of Domestic Violence in the Hudson Valley” will be held on June 2 starting at 7 p.m. at Bard College’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. The performers are Merchant and the Kalmia String Quartet, Amy Helm, Simi Stone, Elizabeth Mitchell and Youngchen Lhamo. Speaking at the event will be Gwen Wright, executive director at the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence; Kathy Welby-Moretti, director of the Washbourne House, Ulster County’s only domestic violence shelter; Renee Fillette, executive director of the Grace Smith House, one of two shelters in Dutchess County; Ulster County assistant district attorney Elizabeth Culmone; and Marjorie Smith, bureau chief for the Dutchess County district attorney. Ticket prices range from $40 to $250, and all sales will be donated to the Washbourne and Smith House shelters, both of which have 24-hour hotlines, beds, counseling services and a children’s program.
Each organization deals with unique challenges, such as helping women who are undocumented and cut off from normal services, or assisting women who lack health insurance. “We have to buy medicine for them right away,” said Welby-Moretti, whose shelter has 17 beds. “Some women arrive with only the clothes on their backs. We just went shopping this week and brought shorts for the kids in our house from a gift certificate someone donated.” The shelter has even had to accommodate newborns in several instances. “A lot of women who come here are pregnant,” Welby-Moretti said, noting that incidents of abuse increase when a woman becomes pregnant.
Grace Smith House, which has 30 beds, making it the largest domestic violence shelter between New York City and Albany, has “to turn away 66 percent of the people who call because there are not enough beds,” noted Fillette. But simply adding more beds is not the solution, she said. “The problem is that our society is not holding offenders accountable for their behavior. We’re constantly having to find ways to protect victims. There’s no guarantee of protection under any circumstance. Often women need to make the choice to live in fear and under violent conditions to keep their children safe.” She added that in many cases children also are at risk of physical abuse.
Physical abusers are motivated by the need to control and manipulate their victims, and it’s when a woman finally decides to leave that she’s most at risk, said Welby-Moretti. Women who call the 24-hour hotline talk to counselors who help them devise a safety plan. But even if they can successfully leave, those with children still are at risk when they have to deal with the batterer because of his child visitation rights.
Even if a batterer is arrested, he rarely goes to jail, said Fillette. She noted that in Dutchess County, a recent change in the law finally enables judges to take into account a victim’s safety when he or she sets bail; previously, all they had to consider was the likelihood that the batterer would appear in the courtroom.
More enforcement is needed, she said. But for women to feel truly safe, society needs to stop closing its eyes to the problem because of the attitude that “whatever happens behind closed doors is private.” That cultural shift begins with educating children and teens. Just as drunk driving is no longer acceptable, bullying behavior should not be tolerated from a peer perspective. “Issues of violence and manipulation and coercion around teen dating should become unacceptable within the peer community,” she said. Fillette’s organization started a domestic violence prevention program last year in ten of Dutchess County’s 13 school districts and has so far reached 5,000 middle schoolers and teens in an intimate classroom setting.
Help is needed now: The shelter directors said that the calls to their hotlines have increased, perhaps due to added stress from the weak economy, or perhaps because more women are reaching out. Fillette noted that her organization received 2,000 calls in the past year, well exceeding the numbers in the shelter’s 32-year existence.
Merchant said that it’s vital for people to face the reality of the problem in their own communities and become active in doing something about it. “We need to sell these tickets. I’m sure there will be women from the shelter there, and I don’t want them to think people don’t care. If we sell only a third of our capacity, I’m going to be heartbroken.”
Shelter: A Concert Event to Benefit Victims of Domestic Violence in the Hudson Valley, Sunday, June 2, 7 p.m., $40-$250, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu, https://shelterconcert.com.