Ithaca, N.Y. — Currently operating with 14 paid staff out of a confidential downtown location, the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County has worked for over 35 years to prevent and reduce the impact of domestic and sexual violence in Tompkins County.

To get a better idea of the history and future of domestic violence services in the Ithaca area, I sat down with Tiffany Greco, Education Director at The Advocacy Center.

Tiffany Greco

Greco said that The Advocacy Center, which started in 1977 as the Task Force for Battered Women, began as a service for women fleeing domestic violence who were in need of temporary housing.

“At that time in the 70s it wasn’t really being talked about and there was nowhere for women like that to go,” Greco said.

At first, concerned citizens and human service professionals volunteered safe homes for victims. By 1982, however, the Task Force had a safe house built. The house, still in operation, houses up to nine people at a confidential address.

“We are full more often than we are not, unfortunately,” Greco said.

In the 1980s, the organization expanded its services to include children and men and added an emphasis on pro-active services and education.

“Up until that point the work had really been about intervening once the crisis had already happened,” Greco said. “But we recognized the need have an education department educating the public and trying to do prevention work to ensure that these patterns of behavior did not cement into the crises that we see today.”

Today, the Advocacy Center’s education department does programming in every school, college, and university in Tompkins County. Especially crucial, according to Greco, is the in-depth domestic violence and abuse education which the center provides to students at the middle-to-high school level.

“Our educator often is part of health classes for a week at a time,” Greco said. “At Ithaca High School she’s been talking about relationships, boundaries, what consent means, making sure that middle-schoolers and teenagers really start to develop healthy relationship patterns while their brains are forming.”

The Advocacy Center also operates a 24-hour hotline which victims can call anonymously to receive emotional support or to request services. An advocate might be asked to accompany a victim to the hospital for a sexual assault nurse examination. Or they might get called to help a victim file for an order of protection.

Greco says that although the Advocacy Center is willing and able to provide extensive services to victims, advocates are always careful not to pressure victims into pursuing one route over another.

“We really let them call the shots,” she said.

Fighting Domestic Violence

When discussing the services the Advocacy Center provides to victims of domestic violence, Greco emphasizes the center’s victim-centered, case- by-case approach. On the other hand, Greco also places the center at the front of the fight against domestic violence, and conceives of individual cases not as isolated, one-off situations, but also as manifestations of the chronic national problem of domestic violence and abuse.

“One thing that we try to emphasize as we try to speak to the public about this is that domestic violence is really a public health problem,” Greco said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that over 8 billion dollars is spent annually on medical and dental costs for victims of domestic violence and abuse.
The solution to this public health problem, Greco says, is education.

“There’s a huge cost to society and there are ways that we can prevent it by educating our youth and our teens to develop healthy relationships,” she said.

When I asked Greco whether there have been any signs that the center’s education initiatives are improving the situation of domestic violence and abuse in Tompkins County, she responded that various factors make it difficult to gauge changes in rates of domestic violence.

“We are never getting the whole picture,” she said. “There are the incidents that happen versus what’s reported. And so we understand that when we look at our numbers.”

The numbers themselves aren’t suggestive. Greco said that over the past three to four years there have been hardly any noticeable changes in the usage of the Advocacy Center’s services. And although the center did see a 30% rise in their hotline calls between 2012 and 2013, Greco said that there is no way to tell whether the change reflects a change in rates of domestic violence.

“Is it because we’re out doing more education programs where people are seeing our hotline or is it that there’s actually more incidents going on?,” Greco asked.

There is, of course, no way to know.

Changes to Legislation and Court Practices

Although the statistics may be equivocal, signs of progress can be seen elsewhere. Legislation and court practices have changed to improve access to orders of protection – a sign, according to Greco, that public officials are becoming more sensitive to the issue of domestic violence.

In 2008, New York State expanded access to orders of protection. Whereas before 2008 orders of protection could only be filed by “members of the same family,” a language change in court legislation expanded access to members of “intimate relationships.”

Following the language change there was a rapid increase in the number of orders of protection filed in the state. According to numbers provided by Greco, in 2007, before the language change, there were 164,387 orders of protection filed. In 2011, several years after the change, that number had increased by about a third.

The change in terminology led to an increase in the number of orders of protection, Greco said, because it expanded access to members of same- sex relationships, non-married partners and teens suffering from dating violence.

Judges are also changing the way they handle orders of protection. Whereas in the past judges would sometimes grant or deny order of protection requests based exclusively on information provided by the complainant in paperwork, judges in Tompkins County now prefer to have complainants appear in court.

“Both of our family court judges have decided it is important for victims requesting these petitions to be seen,” Greco wrote in an email. “This change is not required, but it is best practice. This is a positive change in our community.”

In regard to this change, Rebecca Lee, Client Services Director of the Advocacy Center, said, “there is the potential to eliminate the humanity from the equation if judges are not seeing victims in person. It is important to see the human beings behind these petitions.”

Tompkins County Family Court Judge Joseph Cassidy explained that having complainants appear in court helps to ensure that the person is able to explain aspects of a situation which they may not be able to include in a paper request.

“The answers are there,” Cassidy said in an interview. “People are just not comfortable or are not necessarily ‘good’ at filling out applications for orders or protection. People don’t do this often, people are uncomfortable, people are nervous coming into the courthouse. They don’t know what’s expected of them, they don’t know how much to put in there. That’s why I prefer to meet with the person if I can.”

As part of the Family Court Advisory Counsel, The Advocacy Center has worked to ensure that our court system considers the perspectives of victims.

“We are very thankful that our Family Court Judges are committed to trauma-informed care in this community,” Greco said.

The Scope of the Mission and the “Enough Abuse” Campaign

In one sense the Advocacy Center is a quintessentially local organization. The people whom it serves are from Tompkins County. The institutions which it interfaces with – the court system, the hospital, the schools – are all local organizations.

But in another important sense the center is inseparable from the broader national mission of ending domestic violence and abuse. The rhetoric of abuse which has taken root in national conversations about public health, and which frames abuse and violence in the terms of an epidemic or disease, clearly shapes the way the center understands its own mission. The Advocacy Center sees itself as an organization on the front of the fight against domestic violence and abuse – a fight which is being waged at a national level.

The center’s latest initiative, the Enough Abuse Campaign, appreciates domestic violence as a problem which is at once national and local. It attempts to unify these rhetorics of abuse into a unified and coherent strategy.

Greco describes the project, which was developed in Massachusetts and has now spread to four other states, as a “grassroots community mobilization effort” to “educate any adult who cares for children as a parent or as a caregiver” on “how to prevent child sexual abuse and promote healthy sexual development in a child.”

According to the campaign website, the Enough Abuse Campaign is devoted to ending child sexual abuse. The campaign, which the CDC has called a “trailblazing effort,” recognizes that the problem of child abuse can only be solved through the establishment of “authentic community collaborations engaged in ongoing planning, implementation and evaluation of a range of child sexual abuse prevention strategies.”

Greco says she will be out in the community with other trainers educating parents and caregivers.

“It might be somebody like myself and then an investigator from the Sheriff’s Department out doing these trainings, so it’s a different way of trying to get the word out.”

As a community organization and an organization which situates itself in the context of national healthcare, the Advocacy Center continues to adapt itself to the needs of our community, as well as to healthcare problems which are defined at a national level.

It’s clear that through its involvement with schools, hospitals, and the local court system, the Advocacy Center has played and continues to play a crucial role in helping victims of abuse, and in making sure that the institutions of our community do not operate in ways which exclude or downplay the perspectives of these victims.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.