Despite a reputation as a playground for the rich, the Hamptons are not impervious to the more troubling aspects of society, according to Jeffrey Friedman, executive director of the Retreat, an agency based in East Hampton that offers support for victims of domestic abuse.
The perception that domestic crimes are rare and occur primarily among those who have low incomes is a dangerous one, Mr. Friedman said in a recent interview. “It’s a hidden epidemic that doesn’t discriminate — rich, poor, black, white. . . . You see the parallels between those who are very poor and very affluent.”
The Retreat has had a 56-percent increase in requests for services over the last 18 months. In 2010, there were 800 more calls than in 2009, and most of them were local.
The East Hampton Town police receive more than 300 calls for domestic abuse-related incidents every year, and, since the economic collapse of 2008, the numbers continue to rise.
In a pending article titled “Even in the Hamptons,” to be published in November in The Voice: The Journal of the Battered Women’s Shelter, a publication of the National Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, Mr. Friedman takes on the stereotypes.
“Domestic abuse is not talked about,” he said. “People don’t understand that it’s a real problem. It’s a challenge for us because domestic violence happens behind closed doors.”
Mr. Friedman said that in the last two and a half years, which have been marked by a tremendous downturn in the economy, there had been a sharp spike in domestic abuse. “People simply can’t cope with the stress,” Mr. Friedman said.
Edward Ecker, chief of the East Hampton Town Police Department, shares Mr. Friedman’s concern about the shadows and shame that surround domestic abuse, saying they are serious obstacles to prevention, protection, and the agency’s ability to provide shelter and security.
“One of the strongest means of prevention is acknowledging and recognizing that there is a problem,” Chief Ecker said. “Those beliefs that domestic abuse doesn’t occur in areas of affluence, those misconceptions, are blown out the window in a very short period of time.” The chief noted that some victims of domestic abuse call the Retreat instead ofthe police, even when violent incidents occur. He said that those from the more affluent families are more likely than others to avoid the police in order to maintain appearances.
While Mr. Ecker agreed that the domestic abuse calls have been rising since 2008, he also outlined new tactics in prevention and protection, tracing a long and impressive evolution in training and education that began more than 25 years ago when he was a young detective.
The Retreat began as a task force in 1985 with initial funds donated by the East Hampton Rotary Club. A modest gift from the late Jacob M. Kaplan followed. At the time, the agency owned no safe house; volunteers sworn to secrecy would offer their homes to those in need. The police would escort women and children to these safe places, Mr. Ecker said.
“When [the Retreat] first came to town they changed they way we handled domestic abuse,” he said. “We started getting training and education. Thirty years ago, it was ‘separate and mitigate.’ . . . Two officers would respond to the call and place the people in different rooms and calm them down. That was it. Looking back on it, it was ridiculous.”
Mr. Ecker said that Tom Scott, the former chief of the department, was a progressive supporter of the Retreat’s efforts, and called the Retreat instrumental in altering the very foundations of how the police department deals with domestic abuse.
“I have 28 years of domestic violence experience, but only in the last five years have we been able to really gather data and feedback,” Mr. Ecker said. “For example, if someone makes the motion to do a ‘choke hold,’ trying to wrap their hands around someone’s neck, there is an 80-percent chance we’ll be back at the house again. So, now, if that motion is made, it’s a mandatory arrest. This has been implemented in just the last 18 months.”
Mr. Ecker said it is rare, perhaps only three a year, that incidents rise to that level of violence, but there is one particular case that haunts him.
Blanca Soto, 29, was stabbed to death by her estranged husband, David Soto, following an argument on July 30, 2009. One of their two sons made the 911 call.
“I wish I had a crystal ball because we had been to that house before,” Mr. Ecker said, recalling the event with a sigh. “She had just rescinded her order of protection. These are crimes of passion. If I could just get in their head right there when the pendulum is swinging, I could prevent crimes.” In February 2010, Mr. Soto was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
While Mr. Friedman acknowledges that physical violence is a serious danger, he said that in actuality the core of domestic abuse is emotional.
“It’s the years of breaking someone down,” he said. “It’s about power and control and how to gain that. Everything they do is about power, whether it’s in terms of controlling finances or where that individual goes or who they talk to or whether they can use the car or not. That’s the debilitating part. These abusers isolate these people from their family and friends.”
Mr. Friedman said that different segments of the population, from immigrants to gays and lesbians, often used different means of control. Sometimes the victim is married to someone with citizenship who threatens deportation, he said. Gays or lesbians may threaten to “out” their partners. He also said technology had extended the tentacles of control.
“We talk about technology a lot. Now you can find someone in a moment’s notice. A victim might get a text 200 to 300 times a day. Phones and cars are tracked by GPS. They know exactly where their partner is at any time.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in four women will suffer domestic abuse at some point in her life. In more than half of those cases children are also involved and abused. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States — more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.
Although these numbers are bleak, Mr. Friedman cited two recent advances in the fight against domestic abuse that were positive — more funding and new legislation. The Retreat is one of 23 organizations to have received a federal grant for one of its programs. Mr. Friedman called it particularly groundbreaking because of its title: “Engaging Men in the Prevention of Domestic Violence.”
“The way the economy is going, prevention is the first thing to cut,” he said. “But it’s been very difficult. We’re using the money for a media and social networking campaign, creating events in the community and really trying to engage different populations that we haven’t engaged before.”
Chief Ecker agreed that funding had been a huge obstacle in making serious strides. “There is one pie out there and everyone wants a piece. You take [victims] from a home that’s very violent, but often it’s an end game for those people. You have to be able to get them on their feet, with food and clothes and shelter, and where does it all come from? There are emotional and legal dimensions that are very complicated.”
The second advance Mr. Friedman cited was recent state legislation that will bar individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from purchasing firearms.
“Law enforcement is important,” he said. “Many of the tragic ones do involve weapons. This will indeed save lives.”
Chief Ecker, however, is somewhat skeptical of how much the new legislation will do. “Only the future will show if it’s actually a deterrent,” he said.
One of the most important deterrents, Mr. Friedman believes is education at an early age. He insists that children should learn how to engage in healthy relationships right alongside curriculum that educates them about the dangers of alcohol, drugs, and sex.
He also believes discussion about domestic abuse has to become an open forum. “There is such a stigma attached to it. Victims feel as though they’ve caused the situation so they don’t come out and say, ‘this has happened to me.’ ”
According to Mr. Friedman, 65 percent of those in shelters in this country are kids under 14. “How does that affect a child’s development, being in an environment like that? A young boy who witnesses violence in the home is more likely to be violent in his home.”
While Mr. Friedman says the Retreat’s phones continue to ring off the hook, he is thankful for what he called the East End’s supportive and courageous community. He also praised Mr. Ecker’s dedication to battling domestic abuse, saying it was a particularly helpful facet of the agency’s work.
Between Sept. 12 and Sept. 21, the East Hampton Town Police Department reported four criminal domestic abuse reports, from face slapping and abusive phone calls to the violation of an order of protection to a son forcibly restraining his mother.
“The things that we do really change lives,” Mr. Friedman said.