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Fillette laments that despite an increased focus on women's rights going back 30 years, the root problem can be defined in one word: misogyny. "It's sugar coated, it's glossed over, it's packaged differently, but that's what domestic violence is all about," she says.
"When we're talking about women making the decision to come into shelter, to leave everything, someone who has been victimized, beaten, threatened, who's been degraded to such an extent that the onus has been put on them that they have to leave their home—it's just wrong."
Both women have spent long weeks in courtrooms at the trials of abusers, too often murderers, trying to make sure that justice is done for the abused.
Welby-Moretti insists it is not a class issue. She's counseled wives of doctors, bankers, and captains of industry. "I have seen heads of corporations, very wealthy women, and they don't know where to turn. They don't come to us for shelter, but they come for counseling and they are in the same family court waiting room trying to get away from their abusers."
Different life experiences and a generation separate Fillette and Welby-Moretti, who are friends and colleagues (though Fillette had not heard her compatriot's story of abuse until this afternoon). Fillette's shelter has beds for 30 (soon to grow to 40) and another 40 in transitional apartments. Welby-Moretti can only house 17 women and kids at any one time. Each must turn away two-thirds of the 2,000 calls for help each receives annually. (There are four domestic violence shelters in Ulster and Dutchess Counties.)
"Remember that 55 to 95 percent of women being abused never make that call," says Fillette. We talk with everyone who calls, spending an hour or more on the phone with them and give them what we call a 'warm hand-off,' referring them to someplace else. It's heartbreaking that we can't help more."
On average, an abused woman attempts to leave her abuser six times before successfully making a break. Leaving the last time is the most dangerous. "Think about it," says Welby-Moretti. "If you make that call and there is a shelter bed available, you have to leave everything you know. Your home. Everything that's familiar. Your kid's school. Your friends. And your abuser is not going to be happy.
"What I advise women who are trying to make that decision is to go home, stand in the doorway, and look around. Look at what's important to you. Family photographs, your mother's ring, china. And to think that you're going to close that door behind you and you're never going to see any of that again, that you're leaving it all there, because if you come back—if the abuser hasn't destroyed it—it will be gone. You have to start your whole life over again. These are the most courageous women I have ever known in my life."
Breaking the Cycle of Abuse
Both agree that the biggest challenge for the community is how to try and help change young lives so that patterns of abuse are not repeated. Each has stories of having worked with three generations of the abused and abusers. They are hopeful that in-school seminars preaching a language of nonviolence and introducing the subject as teens begin to date will help.
"I overheard an eight-year-old boy the other day," says Welby-Moretti, "saying he'd been in a fight on the bus and that another kid had 'bitch-slapped' him."
"Was he wearing a 'wife-beater' T-shirt?" wonders Fillette, mocking all-too-familiar popular jargon.
Welby-Moretti: "I said, 'What did you say?' He was so innocent; he didn't know what he was saying. But I almost had a heart attack. This is third grade in America."
Given the realities of their workdays, counseling and sheltering desperate women and families on the run, I wonder how they continue to smile, to go home to their own children and families with any sense of comfort. "I get really good response from businesses and government in my community," says Fillette. "But it requires more than just saturating schools. We need to reach out to employers so they have policies in their systems to support victims. We need to reach out to the medical community because doctors are seeing women all the time who are hiding their victimization because they don't have a safe place to go. The education is needed community wide."