Cellphones a lifeline for domestic abuse victims
STILLWATER On Tuesday, Nancy McCormack was in Schenectady County Court to see a man sentenced to 45 years in prison for murdering two of her relatives, one of them his ex-girlfriend.
On Wednesday morning, the Mechanicville woman watched at Stillwater Town Hall as Saratoga County officials promoted the donation of old cellphones for use by domestic violence victims.
“I had two women come up to me [on Tuesday] and say, ‘I was a domestic violence victim, and I never told anyone,’ ” McCormack said. “It’s a very hidden thing. People need to talk about it.”
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The Stillwater Police Department used it as an opportunity to discuss its cellphone program, the only organized collection effort in Saratoga County.
The phones are donated to domestic violence prevention groups, which give them to victims across Saratoga and Rensselaer counties.
Stillwater started the program in 2003, and to date, the department has collected 3,700 phones.
“Ten years and 3,700 phones later, here we are. It’s too bad there’s still a need for it,” said police Sgt. Ray Cordani, the program’s coordinator.
The phones have had their memories cleared and can only call the 911 emergency number.
“We know they do get used,” said Maggi Fronk, executive director of Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Services of Saratoga County, which distributes some of the phones. “We give them to domestic violence victims so they can go about their lives in the community and feel safe.”
Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III told two stories of the emergency phones being used: One woman who hid it in the bathroom and used it when she locked herself in to avoid a beating, and another who was surprised and choked by an ex-boyfriend hiding in her car but was able to reach a phone in the car’s glove compartment.
“These are real stories where the phones are used and make a difference in someone’s life,” he said.
Murphy said domestic violence cases 20 years ago were simply referred to the non-criminal Family Court system, but are now criminally prosecuted. His office has four assistant district attorneys who focus on domestic violence, and they have 1,100 cases pending.
“This is a normal caseload,” he said. Murphy also said domestic violence can escalate into serious injury or murder, as it did in Brice Rivenburgh’s case. Rivenburgh sent threatening text messages to Jessica McCormack before he killed her and her mother, Tammy McCormack, in Rotterdam.
“I call the four women who prosecute domestic violence the homicide prevention squad,” Murphy said.
The phones collected are divided among Domestic Violence Services in Saratoga Springs and domestic violence programs at the Mechanicville Community Center and Samaritan Hospital in Troy. Those programs, in turn, give the phones to women who need them.
“This is an innovative program,” said Fronk. “It is one of the longest-term and largest-scale drives we have.”
There is no other program in the county like it, Murphy said.
He said the victims may not have a phone other than the emergency phone or have had their known phone taken aware by an abuser.
Cordani said police work with local businesses to collect the phones. He estimated 75 percent come from Wiley Brothers, a Schaghticoke building supply company that solicits them from contractors.
Other collection points include DeCrescente Distributing in Mechanicville, the Stillwater branch of Ballston Spa National Bank, the Mechanicville Express newspaper and Toyota of Clifton Park.
Also Wednesday, state officials announced two new initiatives against domestic violence. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said victims can register to receive alerts when Family Court orders of protection are served by going to the Statewide Automated Victim Information and Notification Network system at www.nyalert.gov.
“The time immediately following when an order of protection is served can be the most dangerous for a victim of domestic violence,” Cuomo said.
Separately, the state Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence unveiled a new public service announcement and awareness video, featuring musician Natalie Merchant, during an event in Albany.
“The message conveyed by both the video and PSA is simple: ‘Don’t Do Nothing.’ If you think someone you know may be the victim of domestic violence, let them know that you are there for them and that there are resources available to help,” said OPDV Executive Director Gwen Wright.
“We need to send a strong message to families dealing with the trauma of domestic violence that there is help, from hotlines and shelters, from sympathetic police officers and teachers and others who will listen to the accounts of abuse and act in a victim’s defense,” Merchant said in a statement.
The video and PSA highlight New York’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline: 1-800-942-6906. The hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Online links to the video include www.youtube.com/nysdomesticviolence, www.facebook.com/nysdomesticviolence and on Twitter at @NYSDomesticViolence.