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Domestic violence victims find comfort in Buffalo's Family Justice Center

Nancy Fischer

Victims of domestic abuse have to confront a wide range of emotions when they seek help. And those emotions can intensify when they take the first steps to prosecute an abuser. But Buffalo-area groups like the Family Justice Center can provide support. WBFO’s Nancy Fischer has more about the center and its expansion plans.

Paralyzed by fear, shame, and indecision – some women may choose to live with domestic abuse until it is too late.

Domestic violence is one of the most under reported crimes, second only to rape. More than 85 percent of victims are women, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Dr. Karen Panzarella knows those emotions well.

“The Family Justice Center wasn’t available to me over 20 years ago when I was in an abusive relationship,” she said. “One of the lowest points for me was when I had to go to family court to get a restraining order from my then-husband.”

Panzarella now works with the center and is an outspoken advocate for victims of abuse. Based on her own experience, she understands how daunting the courts can be.

“It was a long treacherous day,” she recalled. “It was embarrassing. It was belittling and quite frankly I could see how easy it would be to walk away at any point and not follow through with the process because it was so arduous.”

Director Mary Murphy said the Family Justice Center opened in 2006 in Buffalo to make reporting abuse easier. Since that time it has opened satellite offices in Orchard Park, Amherst -- and most recently on Grand Island in June.

The organization is already making plans to raise $150,000 to expand the site at 1801 Grand Island Boulevard.

“The easy answer is to put it all in one spot with all of these partners addressing anything they could possibly need,” said Murphy.

Supervising Attorney for Neighborhood Legal Aid Patricia McGrath said victims can begin the process to obtain an order of protection using video conferencing on a computer at the center.

“They are talking to the person in Family Court remotely,” she said. “They don’t have to cart themselves to family court and deal with the bedlam of court, which for someone facing trauma is an incredible strain.”

Another Grand Island organizer is Laura Mason, who grew up on the island and whose father was a cop there. She said dealing with an abusive relationship years ago brought her a lot of shame.

“I had to call the police and I knew the police,” she recalled. “I knew the judge. I knew people in the courts, family and friends that were there for parking violations,” she said.

Mason said if a Family Justice Center had been available then, she could have gone there discreetly.

Holly Tucker, Chief of the Domestic Violence Unit for Erie County’s district attorney, said reports made by trained nurses at the center can create a record of what has happened -- through forensic mapping of injuries.

The center provides a place for women to feel safe, with no pressure from police or prosecutors, she added.

Murphy said the center’s staff can help victims deal with the trauma of abuse.

“Victims of abuse have been brainwashed into thinking they deserved it,” she said. “Perpetrators are phenomenally gifted at control. This is about one person’s methods of control including violence, threats of violence, and highly, highly effective emotional, psychological, verbal and sexual abuse. And according to victims -- leaving them in a hundred million pieces.”

McGrath said abuse happens in every community. “Domestic violence doesn’t know a geographic limitation. It is as common in East Amherst as it is in the east side of Buffalo.”

But staffers at the center want victims to know that it can get better.

“It’s great that Karen and I can bring our experience here and bring something positive to something that had been negative,” Mason said. “Women need to know that there is hope and you can have a good life.”

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