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New facility assists suburban victims of domestic violence

The shocking 2009 beheading death of Aasiya Zubair Hassan in Orchard Park and the murder trial of her husband Muzzammil two years later gripped the community and thrust the issue of domestic violence into the local spotlight like never before.

Although that case received attention around the world, countless more suburban domestic abuse cases go unrecognized, according to those who work with the abused. Because domestic violence knows no geographic or socioeconomic boundaries, many suburban residents have had greater difficulty getting help because more easily accessible resources are concentrated in the city.

That is slowly beginning to change.

The Williamsville Clergy Association has met three times in the past four months regarding the establishment of a Northtowns Family Justice Center, and subcommittees have been formed to scout out potential locations for a satellite office. That comes on the heels of the establishment of a location in Orchard Park that has worked with 160 victims since February, despite being open only 12 hours a week.

“Oftentimes, we like to keep our private lives very, very private, and that can be very destructive,” said the Rev. Ethan Cole, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, who is helping to spearhead the effort. “This is a real problem in our community, and we have a responsibility to respond to it, especially in communities of faith where we talk a lot about what family is all about.”

That comes as a relief to people like Patty, a lawyer and Amherst resident who was married for seven years to a man whose rages and tirades left her cowering behind chairs and ducking flying objects. She was never beaten, but she still carries a lingering fear of his explosive, psychological abuse even though she left him six years ago.

“He hurt the pets. He smashed and broke things,” said Patty, who asked that her last name not be used. “One time when my daughter was 2, she started mimicking that behavior, and it was so awful.”

Had she not worked downtown, she said, she can’t say for certain that she would have taken full advantage of the resources once offered only at the downtown Family Justice Center, whose headquarters on the 14th floor of 237 Main St. have handled a record 3,250 cases over the past two years.

“They put me back together,” she said of the people there.

The justice center opened downtown in 2006 and has worked with more than 7,000 domestic violence survivors since then. The nonprofit operation costs $700,000 to run, with about $150,000 coming from county and state government, according to Mary Travers Murphy, the executive director. Charitable contributions from the United Way, Oishei Foundation and private donors make up the balance, she said.

But Patty, better than most, recognizes that many other suburban residents who suffer from abuse are too intimidated or overwhelmed to make it down to Buffalo’s Main Street.

“For people who aren’t accustomed to going downtown, they think downtown is difficult to get to, difficult to navigate and dangerous,” she said.

The people working to add a site in Amherst have a good model in the Orchard Park location, which opened on the second anniversary of Aasiya Hassan’s death.

From the outside, the building looks like a simple white house, adjacent to Orchard Park Presbyterian Church. The inside features soft couches, a generous-sized playroom for children and custom window treatments – almost all donated.

It also features a surveillance and security system, bulletproof windows, steel-reinforced doors and immediate access to 13 different agency’s services – from forensic medical and police services to victim and child counseling and legal services. Southtowns clergy sent out a call for assistance on the project and raised $100,000 and countless volunteer hours to renovate a maintenance worker’s residence.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re paddling upstream, and sometimes you hit the current and it just carries you along, and that’s how this was,” said the Rev. Richard Young, pastor of Orchard Park Presbyterian Church. “It just took on a life of its own.”

The Family Justice Center had no funds to purchase or renovate the Orchard Park satellite office, so the community raised the money on its own. At least eight trained volunteers help staff the facility and keep it running, though two paid staff members from the downtown center go there to handle things like victim safety planning.

Representatives with Erie County Crisis Services and the Erie County Sheriff’s Office are also present during operating hours, along with the center staff member. Many other agency advocates are available by phone.

The abuse of spouses and loved ones in the suburbs is an undertold tale, despite its regular occurrence – sometimes with fatal outcomes, according to those who work with the abused.

The same year Aasiya Hassan was killed, Constance Shepherd’s husband slashed her throat. The Town of Tonawanda woman’s body sat in the morgue for a month because her husband, Stephen, still had custody of it. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill into law last month that prevents individuals convicted of killing a family member from having any say over their burial.

This past June, surgeon Timothy V. Jorden Jr. lured Jackie Wisniewski, his ex-girlfriend, into the stairwell at Erie County Medical Center and shot the West Seneca woman four times in the head. He was later found dead near his Southtowns home.

In October of last year, Trevell Walker hanged himself in the Erie County Holding Center after leaving suicide notes saying he could no longer cope with the fact that he stabbed his wife to death in their Cheektowaga home in December 2010.

Three days prior to that death, Peter A. Vega was arrested for killing his girlfriend, Lourdes Rodriguez, in the Town of Tonawanda.

Family Justice Center supporters can point to those cases as proof that a need is clearly going unmet and evidence that the new site will help to meet it.

The Family Justice Center can be reached at (716) 558-SAFE. The Orchard Park branch can be reached at 662-0259 during the operating hours of 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The Erie County 24-hour domestic violence hotline is 862-HELP.