PHOTOGRAPHER: PETER R. BARBER | Inge Simmerman with one of her signs at Route 5 and East Main Street in Amsterdam on Thursday.
Candy Gurtler doesn’t match the image that most people picture when they think about domestic violence. Neither does Jennifer Jennings or LisaMarie Soudelier. In fact, their experiences of domestic violence don’t match common conception, either. These women weren’t necessarily bloodied in brutal beatings; they weren’t threatened with weapons. But that doesn’t make what they went through any less awful.
Their experiences represent the complex, pixelated image of domestic violence — and that lack of clarity is exactly why the issue can be so difficult for many people to truly comprehend. It’s a dynamic that awareness campaigns like Zonta International’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence are hoping to address, bringing to light a situation that has been referred to as the “shadow pandemic,” even as police response data, when taken purely at face value, cut against that narrative.
“If there is one thing in the community that I could change related to domestic violence, it is the image that pops in everyone’s head when you say ‘domestic violence,’” Gurtler said. “That image is a woman with a black eye. That is not domestic violence. It could be. But there is so much more to it.”
Gurtler, who works as the non-residential advocate at The Family Counseling Center in Gloversville, knows from her own experience. She said she is 13 years removed from a 13-year abusive relationship with another woman. There was no single defining argument during which it all came crashing down, Gurtler said. Rather, Gurtler said, she experienced an erosion of her own self-worth.
“You’re a terrible person, you’re stupid. When you hear these things every single day, it weakens you. It takes all the strength and resolve that you have, and it makes it very difficult for you when you do leave to be successful.”
Zonta International, a global organization of professionals empowering women worldwide through service and advocacy, is hoping its recent campaign, which ended Friday but is still evidenced locally by orange signs around Schenectady, Montgomery and Fulton counties, can help limit the amount of women who have to go through what Gurtler and too many others have gone through by spotlighting domestic violence and human trafficking.
“We use that period of time to make people aware in their own communities, in their own towns, that this is an issue,” said Inge Zimmerman, Advocacy Chair of the Zonta Club of Montgomery-Fulton, who noted that domestic violence doesn’t discriminate against race, socioeconomic status or anything else. “Violence against women is not something that is arm’s length away. It is happening to our neighbors, it’s happening to our family members.”
Numbers don’t lie–but they also don’t tell the whole story
And yet, if you look at law-enforcement response numbers, you’d be tempted to think that domestic violence is on the decline — or at least not escalating.
In Montgomery County, law enforcement responded to 282 cases in 2017, 245 cases in 2018, 195 in 2019 and 219 in 2020, according to numbers from New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services. Meanwhile, Fulton County saw 567 and 572 cases in 2017 and 2018 compared to just 378 cases in 2020, according to the state. In Schenectady County, the numbers have held relatively steady, with 1,420 domestic violence incidents in 2017 compared to 1,435 in 2020, the data show.
These numbers are surprising, even to those in law enforcement.
“On paper it doesn’t seem to have risen. I can definitely tell you that I was surprised,” said Fulton County Sheriff Richard C. Giardino. His jurisdiction responded to 298 domestic violence calls in 2019, 249 in 2020 and 259 in 2021 as of the first week in December, according to numbers supplied by Giardino. “Intuitively, I would say with people locked up in the house together there are going to be more cases, but that’s not what we’ve seen.”
Police and advocates say there could be many explanations for the numbers not matching the reality. It could be that people experiencing abuse don’t have an opportunity to call for help when their abuser is in such close proximity, said Jennings, the Family Counseling Center’s Director of Marketing and Fund Development. It could be because the pandemic has caused financial strain for a lot of people, making victims feel like now is not the time to break free, said Soudelier, The Family Counseling Center’s domestic violence shelter coordinator. It could even be because bars have been closed or at reduced capacity during the pandemic, thus giving rowdy abusers less opportunity to rile each other up, said Sheriff Giardino.
To be sure, some jurisdictions have seen a climb in cases. For example, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s office fielded 672 domestic dispute calls in 2019 compared to 793 in 2020 and 744 as of the first week of December this year, according to Sheriff Jeff Smith. He said violence has been up across the board during the pandemic, and he thinks an increase in digital communication could be a major contributing factor.
“Road rage, neighbor disputes, disorderly conduct in general,” Smith said. “We don’t know for sure why, but maybe the fact that people don’t have as much interaction with other people and they are more secluded. Maybe they’ve lost a little bit of compassion and patience in dealing with other people.”
The fact that numbers can go up in one jurisdiction and not in a neighboring county points to why addressing domestic violence can be so vexing, advocates say.
“I think the downward trend is a red herring,” said Zonta’s Zimmerman. “If anyone thinks, oh, great, the numbers are going down, that’s not true. If you are in lockdown, do you really think this is the time you are going to report him for beating you up?”
Finding a way out
Advocates explain that getting out of a domestic violence situation is never easy.
For many, leaving a family is not the way they were raised.
“Culture has a very large bearing,” Soudelier said. “For instance, I’m Hispanic. In the Hispanic culture, you don’t leave your husband, you don’t leave your home, you don’t leave your children. You are there to take care of your children, take care of your house. Divorce is not an option — doesn’t matter how he is treating you.”
Many conservative cultures prevalent in rural areas often have a similar set of values, Jennings said.
A huge part of the problem is that the onus to escape falls on the people being abused, almost always requiring them to uproot their lives by leaving their home, often with kids in tow. Then there are jobs to worry about, legal action to take and a constant fear of retaliation.
“Trying to get out of a domestic violence situation has so many layers of complexity,” Jennings said. “The impact on your livelihood, your safety and shelter, your ability to take care of your children. There are a lot of complex issues that go into someone deciding whether or not to flee their situation.”
If a situation is so physically violent that it’s dangerous, the decision to leave can be clear. But it’s commonly not so obvious, advocates say. That’s because many situations of abuse actually begin with “love bombing,” meaning the abuser is initially sweet, showering the eventual victim with kindness before the situation gradually darkens, according to Jennings. That creates confusion and doubt for the person who is being abused, she said.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that court orders of protection don’t always get served immediately. And police response, especially in rural areas, can take time, Gurtler said.
“I have clients waiting weeks to get the person who is abusing them served,” Gurtler said. “In the meantime, the person is just sitting there, and they have no protection. I can tell you right now I have a client that’s been waiting five days for her order of protection to be served, and she said to me what’s going to be [the police’s] response if [the abuser] does come to me? It takes [police] 45 minutes to come to my house.”
The pandemic has only hindered the system’s ability to respond, Gurtler said.
Shelters like The Family Counseling Center’s safe dwelling, which can house up to nine residents, have been operating at full capacity, with social distancing requirements complicating where beds can be placed. And because of eviction moratoriums, people who come to shelters are having more trouble securing housing, prompting them to stay in a shelter longer, Gurtler said.
What’s more, the pandemic has complicated school situations, with bus driver shortages making it harder to find transportation, Gurtler said.
“So a lot of [people being abused] are electing to stay in their situation because their kids have their own beds and they don’t have to worry about how they are going to get to school,” Gurtler said.
Help is here
The good news is that people who are being abused don’t need to feel like they are alone. Resources like The Family Counseling Center are available to provide support. If you’re in trouble, call the 24/7 hotline (518-725-5300). If there isn’t a spot at the safe dwelling facility, The Family Counseling Center’s staff will help you find a place at a different facility.
At the safe dwelling shelter, where food, clothing and personal hygiene products are provided upon admission, case managers meet with clients daily. Meanwhile, children are transported to their school, or else they are enrolled in a school near the shelter.
“The day [abuse victims] come in and sign all this paperwork, they are often in shock,” Soudelier said. “What’s going on with my life? What has happened? I usually give them a day or two so they can have time to process.”
Then the work begins. Clients are allowed to stay at the shelter for 90 days, during which time they are helped with everything from job training to finding housing.
“Abuse does not happen in a set pattern,” Jennings said. “Every victim of abuse that comes to us is unique. You can’t have a checklist. We know what we need to do to help them, but the order and how is always unique to the individual.”
Once housing is secured, The Family Counseling Center stays in touch, whether the client needs help finding furniture or fighting for their rights in court.
“Whatever it is that you need to do to become safe, we do it with you so you don’t have to do it by yourself,” said Gurtler, who also helps clients who never spend time at a shelter.
It is a sad truth that many people who are abused once often find themselves back in abusive situations, advocates say.
Gurtler said people who are abused are often targeted because they are amazing people.
“People who are abusive know what to look for when choosing their next victim. They are looking for someone who is nurturing because they need someone to take care of them. They want someone to take all the responsibility for their poor choices,” Gurtler said. “You have all these positive characteristics about you. That’s why he found you.”
Learning to recognize these strengths and feel deserving of love can be a long struggle, advocates say. Especially when triggers of trauma lurk everywhere. Soudelier said she remembers a time long after she had left her abusive relationship when she dropped something and immediately grabbed a bucket and sponge rather than a mop. That’s because her abusive partner used to make her get on the floor to clean.
“The person would say ‘you don’t know how to use a mop. Get on your hands and knees.’”
Soudelier said when she got the sponge and bucket, her current partner questioned it. She explained that the hands-on cleaning method had been so deeply entrenched in her mind that her response was subconscious.
“It’s just there,” Soudelier said.
Moving past abuse takes time, but it’s doable, say advocates. And as Jennings points out, choosing to get help is actually the opposite of being a victim.
“The people who are coming to us seeking help, they are trying to self-advocate, and that is not a victim mentality. That is a warrior mentality,” Jennings said. “That’s someone who is taking control and doing as much as they can.”
Gurtler said she doesn’t like to refer to herself as a victim or even a “survivor.”
“I considered myself “healed” because I did the work. I don’t have any of those triggers anymore,” she said. “But it takes work. And you have to recognize when these things are happening so that you can work through them.”
Often, the first sign of progress is small. A “crack,” Jennings called it. It could even be a smile.
That’s what happened for Gurtler. She said she didn’t even realize how dark her relationship had become until she finally left it and was interacting with a colleague.
“Somebody at work said to me this is the first time I’ve ever heard you laugh.”