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Read our latest newsletter: February 2017.

Domestic violence survivors say culture needs to change

Jennifer Nicolas-Francois knows all too well about domestic violence. And she learned it all the hard way.

The 2002 graduate of Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester thought she was on top of the world at 23, when a man nearly twice her age, whom she met and soon moved in with, swept her off her feet — taking her out on frequent dates and showering her with gifts and shopping sprees. Each weekend for the first three months of the relationship, the man would pay for her to fly from Atlanta to Worcester to visit with her toddler son, who was living with family until she got on her feet.

But things suddenly changed the first time that Jennifer defied the man.

He told her not to give money to a homeless man on the street. Remembering that her mother had always taught her to help those who are less fortunate, Jennifer stuck her hand out of the car window and gave the man a $1 bill. While driving, her boyfriend quickly turned and looked at Jennifer, called her the B-word and backhanded her before ordering her to never do that again.

"I was hundreds of miles away from home. I said to myself, 'What did I get myself into?' " she recalled. "We had been together for a year at that time. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place."

Two weeks later, Jennifer found out she was pregnant with the man's son. He seemed happy until a few weeks later, when another disagreement about money led to more physical violence. The man grabbed Jennifer and threw her to the ground and kicked her over and over. He left her lying on the front lawn bleeding, with an injured lip, fractured nose and bruises and lacerations all over her body. Jennifer called her mother and a sister in Worcester, who wired her some money. The next day, "Me and my son caught the first thing smoking out of Georgia," she said. It wasn't long before she miscarried the baby. She attributes it to the beating.

But it took Jennifer marrying a man, the father of her now-3-year-old daughter, who quickly became abusive before she decided she did not want her two children, who were witnessing the violence, to grow up and experience what she had. She is no longer with her husband, who recently began a court-ordered batterers' intervention program in Worcester.

The program, called RESPECT and run by New Hope, is a 40-week psychological-educational program for domestic abusers. Last fiscal year, 1,354 men were ordered into the program, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Jennifer is among countless women who can consider themselves lucky because they are survivors of domestic violence. Too many women end up being a victim of violence from a spouse or intimate partner, thinking they have nowhere else to turn. But there are many resources available.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, designated in 1987, the same year the first national toll-free hot line for battered women was established.

Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., said the month should be called National Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. According to his office, there have been 3,004 new cases of domestic violence from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, compared with 3,032 cases for the same period last year.

"I'd much rather prevent the crime than to prosecute a crime," he said. Five attorneys in his office are assigned specifically to the domestic violence unit. Even with that, there is an overflow of cases that go to other prosecutors in the office.

People from his office go into schools to try to educate girls and boys about domestic violence before it can start. A high-risk team works with domestic violence cases that involve certain criteria including choking or strangulation, weapons in the household and a history of violence.

He said the most important task is to try to empower women to get out of dangerous situations. "We have a lot of resources on our website to help women get out of those relationships and to recognize why they're dangerous," said Mr. Early. "We teach them that when (the perpetrator) is losing control, that's when the situation is most dangerous."

In 2013, there were 16 domestic-violence related homicides statewide. From January through Oct. 5 of this year, there have been 13 homicides related to domestic violence, according to Jane Doe Inc., a coalition of 60 local member programs whose goal is to help victims and survivors of sexual and domestic violence and ways to help prevent it.

Many domestic violence experts and others in the field are using the domestic assault case of Baltimore Ravens football running back Ray Rice as an opportunity to help other victims.

"We're going to assume what happened with the NFL gave people an opportunity to be more aware of domestic violence," said Amarely Gutierrez, director of domestic violence services and transitional housing program at the YWCA of Central Massachusetts. "I think it is a good opportunity to make people aware that this can happen at any level. It's not your typical single mom with three kids. But, on the other side, I do see the survivors portrayed in such a way that they feel inferior … it causes a barrier so they do not seek help."

Toni Troop, spokeswoman for Jane Doe Inc., said since the Ray Rice case most domestic violence programs across the state are receiving more calls for a range of things, including training and workshops at companies and schools. It has mobilized people to think about themselves or somebody they know or someone they work with or go to school with. People are becoming more aware of not only the brutality and lack of humanity that is represented by domestic and sexual violence, but also the long-term impact including housing, health care, education and employment.

The Ray Rice case, she said, is similar to O.J. Simpson's alleged murder of his former wife and her friend and the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill situation, in which Ms. Hill accused the then-Supreme Court nominee of sexual harassment. She said these are all moments in time that actually were watershed moments when it comes to raising awareness and expanding the public's understanding of sexual violence and harassment.

Jane Doe Inc. is working with domestic violence coalitions in the other New England states to reach out to the New England Patriots and other sports franchises to help with the goal of educating the public and helping to address and prevent domestic violence.

Ms. Troop said most corporations, regardless of size, don't have a policy or a comprehensive policy regarding domestic violence. "The Ray Rice situation with the NFL is a teachable moment for individuals to choose to respond in a nonviolent way," she said. "A teachable moment for companies to make sure they have polices in place. And, a teachable moment for all of us to think about what it is we value, not only in our celebrities, but in our friends and family members and colleagues and how we can all help create a world where fear and violence doesn't exist."

Stacey T. James, spokesman for the Patriots, said during the last two months since the Rice case, the organization has received numerous calls from domestic violence groups. He said a database of agencies and what they provide is being compiled. The Patriots' plan is to get direction from the NFL on what to do. Any action they come up with will likely not happen until the 2015 season, because programming has already been budgeted for the current season, he said. "When the league gives us some instructions, hopefully, we'll be ahead of the curve," he said. "We'll be working with them on how we can reach the largest audience, raise awareness and help provide support."

There are thousands of men throughout Massachusetts who have stepped up and are taking active steps to try to prevent domestic violence. Craig Norberg-Bohm, coordinator of the men's initiative with Jane Doe Inc., said that over the past eight years, nearly 600 men have become ambassadors to encourage thousands of men to take the pledge: "From this day forward I promise to be part of the solution in ending violence against women."

He will speak about working together to engage men to end violence against women at the YWCA of Central Massachusetts' annual Daybreak Breakfast at the College of the Holy Cross on Monday.

Mr. Norberg-Bohm, who is also director and co-founder of the Massachusetts White Ribbon Day Campaign, said there are lots of men who want to help, but they don't know what to do. Men who are willing to mentor boys and model positive masculinity are crucial, he said. "If you're a dad, you can do things every day that represent the kind of respect all men can give women," he suggested. "If you're a Little League coach, coach in a way that promotes respect of women and girls. For example, don't say, 'Don't cry. Be a man.' Or 'Don't hit like a girl.' Promoting that is not being helpful in terms of men solving their own personal problems," he said.

Julie B. Ingersoll, a member of Against Domestic Violence in Shrewsbury Education, founded in 1990, said the group began holding October vigils in 2010, after Shrewsbury resident Maureen Rosiello, 44, was beaten to death by her husband in front of their two children. Keith Rosiello, 49, was convicted of first-degree murder in April and is serving life in prison without parole.

Ms. Ingersoll said the purpose of the vigil is to increase awareness about domestic violence and to help end the silence around it. Staying silent is condoning the problem, she said. "By every person saying, 'Yes, this is my problem,' that ends the silence around domestic violence and engages people in participating to end it," she said. "If we're not a part of speaking up against it, we're part of that society structure that keeps domestic violence intact."

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