Schenectady's ally of abused women retiring
Y’s Merrill-Mazurek championed new approach
SCHENECTADY A woman who saw Schenectady through an evolution of thought on domestic violence now is retiring, having created dozens of policies and programs to help victims.
When Carole Merrill-Mazurek became the YWCA’s domestic violence services director, there were no laws prohibiting domestic violence. Police weren’t trained to handle relationship disputes, and those who wanted to escape had very few places to go.
Schenectady was one of the first places in the state to hold police training. The issue was so new that Merrill-Mazurek had trouble getting police to understand that some women needed protection from their husbands.
“Most of the officers made rude comments and snickered,” she said of that first training. “They would tell the perpetrator to take a walk around the block.”
When the man finished his walk, police were gone.
“And you can guess what happened to that woman then,” Merrill-Mazurek said. “It wasn’t even seen as a crime. To get someone arrested, there had to be a ‘vicious assault’ with lacerations and broken bones.”
Now the police have a pro-arrest policy, meaning that they arrest every perpetrator accused of domestic violence when the victim calls 911.
It was one of many changes pushed by Merrill-Mazurek during her long career at the YWCA.
“I’ve always felt it was my ministry,” she said as she retired after 25 years at the YWCA.
Pay cut with a purpose
She joined the Y as a victims’ counselor, taking a $10,000 pay cut because she felt unfulfilled at her state job.
It was many years before her salary rose to the level it had been, but she wasn’t in it for the money.
“I wanted to be part of a movement supporting victims and holding perpetrators accountable,” she said. “The YWCA is a feminist organization. That drew me.”
YWCA leaders recognized what they had in her immediately. Within three months, she was tapped to become the program’s director — although they had to spend another three months persuading her to take the promotion, she said.
She threw herself into the work, pushing police to defend women from their own families.
“You could get an order of protection. Unfortunately it often wasn’t enforced when police came to the door,” she said. “This really was a woman’s issue. We realized as women we had to take action.”
She and others explained the psychological damage from domestic violence, the “power differential” that abusers took advantage of to control their victims, and the way the abuse damaged children as well.
“People never looked at these things before,” she said. “People didn’t take domestic violence seriously. I don’t think people saw it as a societal problem. That is the biggest change.”
Addressing the problem took much more than simply training police. She developed housing programs at the YWCA and safety programs for victims, including a necklace alert-button that allowed them to signal for police if their abuser violated an order of protection. Schenectady was the first community in the state to offer that program, and it saved at least one woman’s life, District Attorney Robert Carney said.
Police had agreed that the alert would be all the permission they needed to enter a victim’s house. When one woman pressed the button, police got to her within 90 seconds.
Her abuser had just broken down her door.
“They got there just as he was beating her,” Carney said. “She told me [the button] saved her life.”
Merrill-Mazurek was also instrumental in helping Carney prosecute domestic violence crimes.
Police practices reviewed
A decade ago, her work led to a review of the police department’s practices regarding domestic violence. The review found that police had added many successful policies, but weren’t regularly arresting perpetrators who had fled the scene before police arrived. In those cases, officers noted in the file that someone should get a warrant later. Often, that didn’t happen.
“Now the patrol officer is empowered to get that warrant,” Carney said.
More recently, Merrill-Mazurek worked with him on stalking cases.
“It’s a more difficult crime to identify,” he said.
She helped create a response team that would gather all data on the victim’s past calls to police. In many cases, Carney said, the victim’s calls had not been linked together because each had been handled separately, often by different officers.
“Now we do a much better job tracking that,” he said.
At the YWCA, Merrill-Mazurek took on the complex housing programs, which give homeless women and victims a place to stay.
It’s not as simple as it sounds. The women have complex needs and problems that must be addressed. At times, some women behave so inappropriately — or fall so far behind on rent — that officials begin to talk of evicting them. But for some women, that meant putting them on the street.
Alternatives to eviction
YWCA Executive Director Rowie Taylor said Merrill-Mazurek found another solution. Women were never going to be evicted to the street.
“What Carole did was shift the paradigm,” Taylor said.
YWCA officials had always said they would try to find alternate housing for women in those situations, but Merrill-Mazurek took the “try” out of it.
She would sometimes work until late at night, forging agreements with the woman’s family or other housing programs, Taylor said. No matter how much the YWCA officials threatened eviction, they never took action until Merrill-Mazurek had found a new place for the woman to stay.
“We are going to find another solution. That became our mantra,” Taylor said.
That worked because Merrill-Mazurek didn’t work in a vacuum. In addition to creating relationships with other housing programs, she founded the Alternative to Violence Taskforce — now called the Domestic Violence Taskforce — which has 50 or more members at any given time.
She said her goal was to get the entire community involved — because, she said, that was the only way to put an end to domestic violence.
Carney and Taylor said her programs and policies would continue long after her retirement.
“She has been so instrumental,” Taylor said. “She has had a lasting effect.”
But after 25 years, Merrill-Mazurek said it was time to retire. She plans to volunteer at Schenectady Inner City Ministry, and possibly at Bethesda House. But her work with domestic violence is done.
She will no longer have to rush to meetings with the police and district attorney after a domestic-violence murder. The late-night emergency calls are over.
But she wouldn’t take back a day of it.
“Just having victims come up to you 15 years after and say, ‘Thank you. Your programs saved my life and my children,’ ” she said. “Those sorts of things keep you going.”