Randi Bregman is the executive director of Vera House, in Syracuse, a human service agency focused on domestic abuse and sexual violence. She’s also co-chair of the Syracuse-area Domestic and Sexual Violence Coalition and serves on the policy committee of the state Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Grant Reeher (GR): What have been the recent trends in domestic abuse and sexual violence, both here in the Syracuse region and nationally?
Randi Bregman (RB): It’s a very difficult question to answer, because we think that sometimes when people are reporting more that means that our work to do prevention and to bring awareness is effective. People are now saying, “This is my situation.” We’ve seen pretty similar numbers over the 23 years I’ve been at Vera house, in terms of the 15,000 police calls around the county to domestic violence, often three or four women a year who are killed by a current or former partner. Those numbers have been pretty steady over time. But I do think that some of the reporting is an indication that we are changing the bar in our community. I often meet people who would say before there was a Vera House, I had this situation, and they had absolutely nowhere to go. They never told anybody. So as we create services, we find there are more people who speak their truth and reach out for help.
GR: Are there estimates of the percentage of instances of violence that go unreported?
RB: I think that number is higher when we are talking about sexual assaults than domestic violence. Some of the recent studies looking at sexual assault in the military, sexual assaults on college campuses, you are often looking at between 10 and 20 percent of people who report an incident of sexual assault.
GR: What are the most important myths or untruths that still have currency among the public when it comes to this topic?
RB: When it comes to an incident of domestic violence, people say, why did she stay? Why didn’t she just leave? There are a variety of myths that get unpacked from that particular phrasing. One is that we as a community don’t ask the question, why does someone hit and hurt and humiliate and put fear in someone they are supposed to love and care about? Instead, we ask the question about the victim, which really is illogical to me. I think it is important to understand the reality of the barriers to leaving that most people face.
First of all, people in abusive relationships want the abuse to end but they may want the relationship to continue. I think that is a myth that people have that is if they have been hurt in a relationship that has been abusive, it must be totally negative and they should be running as far as they can. Life and relationships are usually more complicated than that, so it may take a while for somebody to recognize that they can’t maintain the good parts of the relationship without the abuse, because that depends on the person who is hurting them making different choices.
The other is fear. So often in our community and across the nation, when I talk about domestic violence homicide rates, the person who’s been killed has left the relationship either emotionally or physically. That’s a reality, and the most dangerous time for a person is the six months after they leave that relationship. There is a real-life fear that we can’t guarantee people’s safety, and sometimes they think they are better able to keep themselves and others they love safe by staying in the relationship.
On the sexual assault side, I think the greatest myth is still the sense that a rapist is a stranger lurking in the bushes at night when you are coming down the path, when the vast majority of sexual assaults are by people the victim knows, and they are often in a more complicated relationship than people expect. There is a lot of denial and minimization of the reality of that rape experience, because the victim and the perpetrator don’t fit the stereotypes in people’s minds.
GR: What do we know about why people engage in abusive and sexually violent behavior?
RB: There is a foundation of a desire to have power and control over another person. There are a host of (other) factors that come in, and we don’t want to be naïve and say it’s only item A. Ultimately, what they are trying to do is maintain control over something in their lives. Often, they may not feel that they have the control they want in their own life and so there is a desire to find power and control by using it against another person.
GR: One of the things that I’ve read about mandatory arrest policies is that there is a double-edged quality, which relates to something you said before about the person wanting the abuse to end, but not the relationship. The policies could have a chilling effect on some victims’ willingness to go forward, because they understand what is going to happen if they make that move.
RB: I think that is a very fair point. Some victims don’t want to call for help because they don’t want to see the perpetrator arrested. I think with any policy shift, you see some pros and some cons. As a whole, I believe that domestic violence or sexual assaults are crimes that need to be responded to, and that offenders need to be held accountable for. What that accountability looks like is part of the question we need to continue to dialogue about. Many times, a victim does not want to see the perpetrator held in jail. Jail is expensive, not usually very effective in changing behavior. I think when you can have programs that give victims options for the consequence so that they don’t have to necessarily think the only option is jail – we have seen that kind of responsiveness in our community from the district attorney’s office and from the others who are involved. If what they really want is to have the abusive person sent to the alternatives program, to get that education, maybe they get put on probation and there is some accountability. A lot of perpetrators don’t end up going to jail, and I think that is really the fear that most victims have: Is the perpetrator going to jail? The idea that the perpetrator will get education and be encouraged to change their behavior is often a positive.
GR: I imagine that as LGBT couples have become more empowered and accepted, more of these individuals might be coming forward as victims. Are there treatments or preventions that are different in that realm than they are at the other, more traditional realms?
RB: I think in some communities; New York City, for example, has some targeted services for lesbian and gay victims. I think in our community, we are a little bit smaller, and so we do provide services to lesbian women and gay men and transgender individuals who have experienced violence, but right now they are integrated into other programming.
GR: I would think that this has to be some of the most harrowing work on the planet. What keeps you and the staff at Vera House going?
RB: There are a few core things that keep the staff going. One is you get up every day and you know that the work you are doing means something and is important and makes a difference. The other thing is the sense of second family and a community that you create when you do this kind of work. You really create a community of support, so that if someone at Vera House is dealing with a really difficult case, really triggers their own feelings of trauma, they have a support system.
GR: What motivated you to go into this line of public service?
RB: I’m not one of the people who said I always wanted to work in the field of domestic or sexual violence. I actually came from a policy background. I was a political science major at SUNY Albany. My yearbook says you’ll be my senator, I’ll vote for you. So that was my direction, and then I ended up back in Syracuse. I wanted to raise a family and be close to family, and I ended up finding a calling to go to social work school. I realized that sometimes on the policy front, it was hard to say if I was making any difference. When I thought about social work, I thought maybe one-on-one I could feel a little bit more like I am making a difference. What I was able to find at Vera House was the ability to take the individual in the room and connect that to the larger policy changes we needed, and then to take the policy changes and make sure the individual in the room benefited from them. And six months after I started at Vera House – it almost sounds religious – I realized I found a calling. And I have been there for 23 years. I imagine I will retire from there … because the work is giving my life that kind of meaning.
GR: If someone is (reading) this and they feel like they may be or have been a victim of abuse or violence, how can they get in touch with your organization and what should they do?
RB: Our 24-hour support line is (315) 468-3260. Twenty-four hours of the day, seven days a week, you can reach a trained counselor who can take your call.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.