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On the Front Lines: Volunteers Use Their Own Experiences to Help Passaic County Domestic Violence Victims

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PATERSON, NJ – Lydia learned the dangers of domestic violence when she was growing up in Paterson decades ago. Her dad pulled a gun on her mom and the weapon went off. Lydia was shot in the shoulder.

That was in the 1970s and the bullet is still there. It couldn’t be removed, she said, because it was too close to the heart and it would cause complications.

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Back then, Lydia said, there were few options for victims of domestic abuse. And when Lydia got older, she found herself following the same pattern as her mother, getting involved in violent relationships.

“Restraining orders … the hard nine-yards,” she said. “You put up with it. You want to work it out.”

Lately, Lydia has put those hard experiences to good use. The Paterson resident, who like other people interviewed for this story asked that her full name not be published, has been volunteering at the Passaic County Women’s Center to help victims of domestic violence.

The non-profit domestic violence and sexual assault agency is based in Paterson, but works with people from all over Passaic County. The center offers victims a place to go for support, where volunteers will listen to them and offer guidance based on their own first-hand experiences. The center also provides victims with help finding protective shelters, navigating the legal system or whatever they need to feel safe and start a new life.

Theresa A. Bivaletz, the center’s domestic violence response team coordinator, started volunteering six years ago through NJ Association on Corrections, and began working in Paterson a little over two years ago. Her motivation is to give people a sense of empowerment. “I don’t like when people are hurt or in danger or feel like they’re trapped in an abusive relationship,” she said.

Seeking help is just the beginning, Bivaletz said. Many victims have managed to turn their lives around, but it’s a difficult process, partly because it sometimes takes time for someone to leave a violent relationship. “If there’s children involved, you might still have to see that person,” she said.

Volunteers at the Center go through an extensive training program in order to be in the best position to help victims.

Terry is another volunteer at the center who wanted to be there for someone else after being involved in a domestic violence relationship. She wants victims to know that they are not alone.

Recent immigrants, especially those who may be in the country illegally, are particularly vulnerable to abuse, volunteers said. Some immigrants don’t know about about legal protections and rights available to them, volunteers said. “We don’t condone abuse,” Terry said.

Many victims become confused when their abusers try to make up with them with gifts of flowers or money, volunteers said. But the cycle of violence almost always repeats itself, they said.

The sessions between victims and volunteers are kept confidential, with some exceptions. For example, Terry said, if a victim says she’s going to kill herself, she will be referred to a suicide crisis center. If victim says she wants to kill her husband, police would be notified. Also, any disclosures of child abuse also are reported to authorities.

Terry admits that volunteering for domestic violence victims wears on her emotionally. “Sometimes you have to take a break,” she said. “You have to know your tolerance level.”

Rich decided to become a volunteer in 2006 after dating a girl who was unfortunately abused by her ex-husband. “She told me all about the abuse,” he said. “I saw the effects of it.”

The hard part of volunteering, according to Rich, is trying to explain to victims that it’s not their fault. “Depending on how long they’ve been battered, it’s tough,” he said. “It’s nice when some things that you say click.”

There are all levels of abuse that victims take. Rich has seen women come in with no teeth. “It’s really sad, sometimes, to see them all mangled up,” he said.

Rich has a soft spot in his heart for the male victims. “That has its own set of difficulties,” he said. “You can’t defend yourself. You can hit her back, but that’s not gonna resolve the issue. You want to talk about somebody being embarrassed!”

Rich also pointed out that the elderly can become victims of domestic violence. He shared the story of a 74-year-old woman who was chasing her husband with a knife. “Most times it started 15 or 20 years ago, they never nipped it,” he said. “At this age, maybe she feels more empowered. It could be a medication issue or a jealousy issue. There are so many variables.”

Rich feels that the main thing in the mind of an abuser is that the victim is a possession. “It’s a sense of ‘that’s mine,’” he said.

And once the abuse starts, it doesn’t end. “I haven’t come across anyone that said, ‘It only happened once,’” Rich said. “If he brings you 100 roses and tells you, ‘I’m sorry,’ six months down the road, if you happen to be in his line of fire, there he goes again.” Rich has found that once he digs into the history, all abusers have gotten abused themselves.

Being male, Rich is able to give the female victims a nice guy’s point of view. “I try to explain not all guys hit, not all guys hurt. They don’t go home going, ‘men suck.’ I think they walk away more relaxed. They get a better sense, guys aren’t like this [the abuser],” he said. “So many times they’re in it for so long they think all men are jerks. Unfortunately that perception is there. I try to bring them to another level of – it’s not like that.”

Even though Rich’s heart goes out to the victims, he doesn’t build up friendships with them, mainly for the safety issue. He said, “There are times when your heart goes out. You feel like driving them home and making sure they’re okay.” But there are other departments in the community that take that step. “Not that you don’t care,” he said. “You have to draw some sort of line to protect yourself. He [the abuser] can come to you.”

The Passaic County Women’s Center is currently looking for more volunteers. The next training session starts in March 2012. If you are interested, please call Theresa A. Bivaletz at 973-881-0725 or email her at: tbivaletz@njaconline.org

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