Domestic violence in WNY is “a public health crisis” — up 74%, says the president and CEO of the Family Justice Center of Erie County
By Michael J. Billoni
Mary Travers Murphy, a former television consumers affairs journalist in Buffalo and a former town of Orchard Park supervisor, became executive director of the Family Justice Center of Erie County in January 2010.
She was inspired to take the job after a close friend and another women were brutally murdered as a result of domestic violence within six months of each other in Orchard Park.
Her friend, Aasiya Hassan, was beheaded by her husband in 2009 and it shocked the community and raised many questions about domestic violence and the services offered to victims of abuse.
Murphy said those deaths are the reason she “jumps out of bed every day to work at the Family Justice Center to help shine a light on this horror show in our society.”
Serving as CEO of the group since 2019, Murphy leads a team of 13 employees at the Family Justice Center, headquartered in the Main-Seneca Building in downtown Buffalo with satellite locations in Orchard Park, Williamsville and soon on Grand Island. Its annual budget is $860,000 with a third of funds coming from government sources, a third from private foundations and a third from fundraising.
Q: How serious of an issue is domestic violence in Erie County and Western New York?
A: “It is a public health crisis. The definition of the abuse we are talking about is control. The control the victims are under involves talented control freaks working out of the same handbook and one of their most effective tools is to convince the victim they are causing the problem and are responsible for it. That is not true but these victims are brainwashed to believe it. One in three girls in the 10-12 and 24-26 year old age group are victims of a controlling, abusive and often times violent relationship. One in four women and one in seven boys and men are victims. This is all about control and long before these relationships turn physical, there is the breakdown of psychological, emotional, verbal, financial, sexual and social media abuse that can go on for years before it becomes physical and sometimes deadly. The abusers will do and say anything to maintain that power and control, including threats of killing the victims or the children if they leave or say anything to anyone.”
Q: How does the Family Justice Center help these victims and when did it begin?
A “Twenty years ago the Erie County executive called together nearly 100 people, from survivors of domestic violence, police and the many agencies that deal with these issues and said we have a problem — the number of calls for abuse and the number of homicides because of it are increasing. After walking through a victim’s steps seeking help for themselves and their children to get out of an abusive relationship, it was easy to see there were too many steps which led them to ask, ‘Why not put all of these services under one roof with an advocate to hold a victim’s hands from that first phone call and through the process, including obtaining a restraining order from the courts.’ That is how we opened our downtown office and the satellites and it has been a 100% game changer for the victims. We have representatives from every agency they need right here ready to assist them and it is all done in strict confidentiality.”
Q: How has the pandemic affected the Family Justice Center?
“Except for a few weeks in the summer we have all been working remote. In a way, COVID has been the biggest blessing in disguise because calls from victims have increased by 74% and it continues to climb but, more important, we found we could operate efficiently. We saw an increase of 1,000 new and returning clients in 202 for a total of 4,362 clients compared to 3,094 in 2019. A majority of the client calls were considered a high lethality risk, which is unprecedented in our agency’s history. The numbers are increasing because of the convenience of someone calling our hotline and having our advocate begin the process with them. All of our services are free and when the courts went into quarantine, they went to teleconferencing for orders of protection. It was like a miracle because it spares our clients hours and hours of time in court. One of the most effective tools for these control freaks is the ability to isolate so when they quarantine mandate came down it was a dream come true for them and a nightmare for victims.”
Q: What should victims of abuse do in those situations?
A: “Call our hotline at 716-558-SAFE and talk with one of our advocates who will immediately let them know they are not alone, the cycle of abuse repeats and mostly, this is not their fault. We begin with an assessment of questions and we use these responses to obtain an order of protection from court for them. During the pandemic, while victims are working at home, it has been easy for them to chat with us online or by phone. It is all confidential and their safety and the safety of their children is very important.”
For more information, visit www.fjcsafe.org and if you are a victim of abuse, call its hotline at 716-558-SAFE (7233).