The Many Faces of Domestic Violence: Survivor and URI Supporter Linda Wolff
Linda Wolff’s experience demonstrates that domestic violence can affect any of us, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socio-economic level. A successful entrepreneur who owns CPW, a clothing boutique on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Wolff, a URI supporter and volunteer, was in an abusive relationship for 15 years until she finally broke free. Her abuser, a police officer, put her through years of physical, emotional, and financial abuse.
“I want people to understand that there’s no typical face of domestic violence—people think it’s a problem that only affects lower-income minority groups, and that’s not true,” Wolff says.
The turning point for Wolff was when her abuser punched her in the face in the office area of her store. She left him, but leaving was only the first step on the path to emotional and psychological healing. By participating in support groups and a process of self-discovery, Wolff came to understand more about herself and the dynamics of the relationship.
“I was a people-pleaser—a caretaker and co-dependent. As long as he was happy, I was happy. As long as he was in a good mood, I was in a good mood,” she explains. “I didn’t have self-esteem, self-care, or self-love. I had to learn that ‘no’ is a full sentence, and that it’s not okay—no matter what—for a guy to hit you. I was never taught that there are boundaries that you can’t allow people to cross.”
Many domestic violence victims grew up in abusive environments, and that’s all they’ve known, Wolff says. Her own childhood was scarred by alcoholism and abuse. “Most of us have a history. The women I’ve met in the shelter have had horrific home lives,” and they don’t have the tools or knowledge to break the cycle and make a change.
More than a decade later, Wolff feels she has come a long way in her recovery process, yet it’s “still a work in progress.” Helping women who have been in similar circumstances is one of her strongest motivations for supporting URI. Many of URI’s shelter residents have told Wolff how much she has helped to shift their perspective and give them the confidence to believe that they can change their lives for the better: “They think that going into shelter means you’re a loser, but I’ve told them that it means you’re a winner.” When she spoke to graduates of URI’s Working Internship Network program, which helps shelter residents develop job skills and experience, some of the women came up to her afterward and said it was “life-changing” for them to hear her story.
The women’s confidence and spirit is also boosted by the clothing and accessories they receive from donations at the clothing drives Wolff holds at her store. “The women love it, because it gives them choices, and they don’t have to feel that they’re dressing like they’re living in a shelter,” she says.
Wolff asked URI shelter director Kenneth McCrae, “If you could tell me one thing these women need, what would it be?” His response—“Every woman needs a robe”—inspired her to find robe wholesalers and distribute the robes to URI’s shelter residents at a special Easter celebration. Renowned actress Kyra Sedgwick, a friend of Wolff’s, also became involved, donating 60 of the robes and including personally signed headshots of herself with each one.
“I see the impact it has on the women in URI’s shelters when I share my story with them,” Wolff says. “I wish there had been someone to tell me what I’ve told them. But people don’t talk about it, because there’s so much shame and embarrassment—they are afraid of being judged.” She stresses that it’s critical for domestic violence victims to understand that the abuse is not their fault and to talk openly about it and reach out to get help.
A Special Mother’s Day Gift: Safety for the Whole Family
Mother’s Day 2014 should have been a day of joy and celebration for Margo, 43, the mother of a seven-month-old son. Instead, the baby’s father got drunk and became abusive—he started an argument with Margo, threw her belongings around, and punched the door. Sadly, this type of behavior was nothing new: in the past, he had punched Margo in the face while she was holding the baby and often cursed at her and threatened her.
After three years of an on-and-off relationship with the batterer, Margo recognized that her spirit was being broken, and she needed to think of the welfare of her child. Her two dogs, Jimmy and Jenny, were also affected by the violence. In particular, Jimmy became aggressive in trying to protect Margo, and the batterer had threatened to harm the dogs.
Mother’s Day was a turning point. Margo called the domestic violence hotline, and the next day she, her son, and her dogs were admitted to a URI shelter. Margo was able to bring her dogs with her into shelter because of the URIPALS program, which began accepting dogs in March 2014. Like all dogs who enter the shelter, Jimmy and Jenny received much-needed supplies thanks to the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals and the ASPCA, including crates and carriers, dog food, food and water bowls, toys and treats. They also received comprehensive veterinary exams and vaccinations and were spayed and neutered—no-cost services provided through URI’s partnership with the ASPCA. Cats entering the shelter also receive veterinary care from the ASPCA, as well as fully stocked welcome kits provided by Purina.
Jimmy initially showed some aggression in new situations with URI staff, but he calmed down when he saw that the staff’s interactions with Margo were safe and not violent or angry. An ASPCA behaviorist has worked with the family and staff to help shift negative behavior, and Jimmy has made great progress—he is now much less aggressive. The dogs are also enjoying the shelter’s Purina Play Haven and Dog Park, which gives them the chance to be outside and get exercise while being safe.
Margo has been participating in groups and activities at the shelter and is taking steps to get back into the workforce. The URIPALS program has given the whole family a chance to heal.
Pamela Isaac and Her Feline Family
Pamela Isaac is one of the most inspiring domestic violence survivors URI has worked with. Having faced a lifetime of abuse, she was recently in a relationship that ended with the abuser burning her house down while her cat was still inside. Sadly, Pamela’s cat didn’t survive the attack. A subsequent relationship also ended in physical, verbal, sexual, and financial abuse. One day, the abuser caused a scene at Pamela’s workplace, demanding she give him her cell phone, which he took and broke. This was her breaking point; Pamela was determined to no longer be a victim of abuse.
With her three cats, Ricky, Lucy, and Gizmo, in tow, Pamela began the process of trying to find a safe place to house her pets while she entered shelter. While getting counseling through victims’ services at the District Attorney’s office, she was overjoyed to discover that through the URIPALS program, she could enter shelter with her cats, who had been an important part of her life in good and bad times. “When I’m doubting myself,” Pamela says, “my pets give me purpose to take things one day at a time.”
Over the next six months, Pamela and her cats began the healing process at URI’s Safe Haven shelter. Throughout their stay, Ricky, Lucy, and Gizmo received veterinary services, including micro-chipping, de-worming, dental care, and necessary shots, as well as everything they needed to live comfortably in shelter: crates, litter boxes, toys, food, and scratching posts. Most importantly, Pamela says, her cats were her companions and sources of consolation during her recovery. “They depend on me, but I depend on them, too.”
Selena: Overcoming Abuse and Helping Fellow Survivors to Heal
Selena, a native of Trinidad, is a survivor of cruel, harsh domestic violence inflicted by her husband of 17 years. During Selena’s stay at a URI shelter, she felt “free, empowered, and reborn.” She said that she was a “new person … no longer a victim.” While at the shelter, Selena demonstrated concern for the other survivors and was always ready, willing, and able to help her fellow residents. Selena assisted the other residents by providing peer counseling, emotional support, and resources, and she represented the Urban Women’s Retreat at a mini-conference held in collaboration with Urban Women’s New Beginnings, where she spoke of her experiences. Selena prepared to enter the workforce by participating in URI’s Working Internship Network program, and she is currently studying to take the GED exam. She remains upbeat and is deeply concerned about issues that affect women and children. Selena has a passion for helping others, and her ultimate goal is to work in the helping field with survivors of domestic violence.
Mary’s Story: A New Beginning
Mary fled to New York after the abuser tracked her down at a shelter in her home state. She entered one of the URI shelters with her children. Because Mary did not have legal status in the U.S., she feared the abuser, a U.S. citizen, would take her children and have her deported back to Haiti. She was especially concerned in light of the devastating earthquake that occurred in Haiti in January, 2010.
While in shelter, Mary was referred to the Domestic Violence Legal Education and Advocacy Program (LEAP). After assessing her situation, LEAP realized that Mary did not qualify for a self-petition under the Violence Against Women Act, because she and the abuser were not married. Mary also was not eligible to apply for a U visa because when she fled from her home state, her court cases were dismissed.
After careful review, LEAP determined that Mary qualified for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a status designated by the Secretary of Homeland Security recognizing that nationals of certain countries are unable to return home safely due to temporary conditions, such as ongoing armed conflict or environmental disasters.
LEAP prepared and filed a TPS petition for Mary, which was approved. She was also granted a work permit and qualified for medical benefits. Mary can now work and support her family.
Pattie’s Escape From Abuse
Pattie was told by her parents that a marriage had been arranged for her, which is common in their Hindu culture. Pattie married Vin in Guyana after knowing him for only a few days. Within the first year, Pattie gave birth to a son. Vin, a U.S. citizen, started the immigration process so that Pattie and their son could come live with him in America.
Unfortunately, when Pattie arrived to the U.S., she learned that Vin was controlling and violent. She was not allowed to leave the home nor use the telephone. He would lock her inside the apartment, beat her with a belt, and frequently push her around. After he held a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her, she escaped from the abuser. She stayed with family until they pressured her to return home. The abuse continued. She escaped again and later entered a URI shelter. Pattie participates in counseling and other supportive services at the shelter, and her self-esteem and self-confidence have improved.
She travelled to Albany with URI staff and other survivors for Legislative Awareness Day, and lobbied for laws that would improve the lives of victims of domestic violence. Pattie also received help from the Domestic Violence Legal Education and Advocacy Program (LEAP), because the abuser had not completed the immigration process. LEAP filed U visa cases for both Pattie and her son.