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Domestic violence victims suffer throughout county

Mirror photo illustration by Patrick Waksmunski and Sarah Vasile

Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior where one person yields power or control to another, and it can happen to anyone, said Ashley Gay Vocco, victim services program director for Family Services Inc.

In many instances, the term domestic violence doesn’t adequately encompass the behaviors exhibited in abusive relationships, Vocco said.

“We prefer the term domestic abuse, because the violence isn’t always there,” she explained. “Domestic abuse can take many forms, including financial abuse, verbal and coercion — any way a person can exert control over another person.”

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and to help people better understand domestic violence, as well as to stand in solidarity with survivors, Vocco is encouraging Blair County residents to wear purple on Thursday.

“Purple Thursday is a national event about showing our community members that we don’t stand for abuse,” she said. “And for those experiencing it, we’re here to help.”

It happens here

Domestic violence and abuse are an issue that affects every demographic and socioeconomic sector of America. But Blair County District Attorney Peter Weeks said Blair County likely struggles with domestic violence more than surrounding counties.

“We don’t have the data to compare, because the Association of Pennsylvania Courts doesn’t currently share data from other counties,” Weeks said. “But, our child abuse cases in Blair County — per capita — seem to be higher.”

First Assistant District Attorney Nichole Smith said she worked in Centre County prior to Blair County, and anecdotally, she agreed.

“Domestic violence is a crime that happens behind closed doors, so it’s really difficult to say what’s being reported,” Smith said. “We do know, however, it ends up happening everywhere.”

In 2019, the Mirror reported data compiled by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that showed during a nine-year period ending in 2018, Blair County had more protection-from-abuse cases filed per capita than the state overall or any of the surrounding counties, and that in a five-year period ending in 2018, Blair’s filings exceeded those of all but one of the state’s half-dozen fifth-class counties.

Pros, cons of tech

While progress has been made in the ongoing battle against abuse, abusive behaviors have adapted to fit the 21st century.

Pennsylvania criminalized revenge porn and strangulation in recent years, providing prosecutors and law enforcement officers another way to shield abuse victims.

“Prior to the passing of (strangulation) law, it was lumped in with simple assault, which is a misdemeanor,” Vocco said. “But as laws catch up, abusers find their way around them.”

Atle Walter, Blair County Victim/Witness Program director, said technology — for all its benefits — significantly increased abusers’ ability to track and torment their victims.

“It’s not just the visible aspects,” Walter said. “We’re all more connected than ever, and (abuse is) the text messages that come non-stop from different numbers, having 100 percent control over someone’s phone, and cloud technology allows people to have unlimited access to someone’s devices.”

Keylogger apps allow people to track every word typed into a device, location-tracking apps can be hidden in a device and financial abuse — the control of someone’s income — can be facilitated by online banking or transaction-tracking apps.

On the other hand, the criminal justice system is also using technology to protect abuse victims. Weeks said some offenders are fitted with bracelets that ping when they come too close to their victims’ phones, alerting both the victims and the offenders’ parole officers.

Vocco said the RUsafe app, developed by The Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh and Newton Consulting, allows users to identify if they could be in potentially dangerous situations, as well as connects users with local resources.

“It can connect you to your local law enforcement, 911 dispatch and (Family Services Inc.) when you’re in Blair County,” she said. “It also has a lot of information and talks about what domestic abuse looks like and what tactics abusers use.”

Resources

While Vocco works with victims advocates, shelters and victim assistance programs, Walter works with the DA’s office to provide victims’ assistance in legal matters.

“We meet with victims at the courts, connecting them to resources, keeping them updated, empowering them to use the best of this situation,” Walter said. “We work with them to make sure their voice is heard.”

The Victim/Witness program is funded through state and federal grants to ensure its focus remains on the victims, she added.

Family Services Inc., is a nonprofit that operates throughout Pennsylvania and provides a number of services, including homeless shelters, child advocacy and victims services.

“Being nonprofit gives us the ability to tell our survivors, ‘We are beholden to you and only you,'” she said. “And if there’s something a survivor needs that we can’t provide, we do make referrals to other services in the county, such as transportation, food give away, crisis counseling and drug and alcohol addiction.”

People in domestic abuse situations also can call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 800-799-7233 or 800-787-3224 (TTY for the deaf).

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence actively lobbies for victims and can help provide crisis intervention, counseling, accompaniment to police, medical and court facilities and temporary emergency shelter for victims and their dependent children. The coalition can be reached at 800-932-4632.

Supporting victims of domestic abuse can be as easy as listening, Vocco said.

“For some, the first step is really just being heard and believed,” she said. “If you’d like to do more and participate in Purple Thursday, all you need to do is wear something — a tie, a pin, anything — purple, letting the community know you stand with the survivors.”

Purple pins and additional information can be found at www.familyservicesinc.net.

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