By HEATHER NELLIS
FONDA -- Montgomery County's Task Force Against Domestic Violence on Tuesday hosted its annual ceremony kicking off Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Dignitaries and professionals gathered in the county courthouse for the event, during which officials shared proclamations supporting the task force's efforts.
But the event was much more than pomp and circumstance. The task force aims to prevent, protect and educate the community on domestic violence, and Chairwoman Ginger Cato says statistics show it's working.
Cato pointed to Women's Health Organization statistics that say 30 percent of all women are victims of domestic violence, an increase from 25 percent.
Montgomery County's reported case numbers have also increased, according to state Division of Criminal Justice Services' most recent data. In 2012 there were 278 reported cases, versus 137 reported cases in 2011.
Some might think the effectiveness of such a program should reverse the figures, but Cato said that's not the case.
"The numbers of victims hasn't increased, but more people are reporting the abuse," said Cato, the community educator at Catholic Charities of Fulton and Montgomery Counties. "There's an increase in cases because there's more awareness. Society isn't keeping the secret anymore."
Cato defined domestic violence as a pattern of abusive behavior aimed at gaining, then maintaining power and control over a family member or intimate partner. In a small number of cases, men are abused by female partners, but 91 to 95 percent of all adult domestic violence assaults are perpetrated by men against their female partners, Cato said.
"Domestic violence affects victims differently than those of other crimes, because it's a loved one causing them harm, and they can't get away from it," said Undersheriff Jeffery T. Smith. "It's an important issue, and something we should have no tolerance for."
There's a coordinated network in Montgomery County dedicated to combating the issue, including judges, police, prosecutors and advocacy and support organizations like Catholic Charities.
Catholic Charities provides an array of services for those suffering domestic violence. Services are open to everyone -- male, female, straight, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
"We do not discriminate," Cato said. "A victim is a victim."
The 24-7 hotline (842-3384) is answered by staff members who can tell victims where to go for help. Legal advocates help victims with custody petitions and orders of protection, and attend both family court and criminal court proceedings, either with the victim, or on their behalf.
During his address at Tuesday's event, District Attorney James E. "Jed" Conboy saluted Catholic Charities staff members for their work in the courts.
"They do more than hold hands," Conboy said. "The advocates give victims the courage and strength to come in here and litigate their cases."
Conboy cited the laymen's perception of the court system, distrust of lawyers, and the intimidation of judges.
"The courthouse is not a very friendly place," he said. "When people come through the magnetometer, it's not like walking into Disney Land. They don't come here saying, 'I'm looking forward to this,' and they don't leave here saying 'That was fun; I can't wait to do it again.' This is the place people come to try to resolve conflicts that they can't resolve on their own.
"I get the feeling when you come here as a litigant, it's like walking into a foreign country," Conboy continued. "And not on a vacation, but coming to a foreign country having some of the most important issues of your life needing to be resolved."
Victim advocates, though, help bridge the gap, Conboy said.
Cato said the organization has advocates in family court every day, and in Amsterdam city and county courts as needed to assist and/or represent victims.
Before cases get to that point, though, Catholic Charities offers other services to give victims support.
"We get referrals from the court, the district attorney's office, and police, but we also receive a lot of hotline calls. A lot of people don't want to involve police, and it's not my job to force that, so we give them options and let them choose," Cato said.
Cato said her office can arrange orders of protection through the courts, without going through police departments.
Catholic Charities also offers support groups, counseling, transportation to court, a cell phone program, and access to its safe house.
Cato said the safe house has been near capacity for months. It offers victims a place to stay for up to 90 days, though staff will help victims obtain social services, find a place to live, and secure work.
"Most single people don't qualify for social services, which is why we try to help them find jobs," Cato said. "We don't do it for them, but we help. The victim was probably dependent on their abuser, so we want them to do things for themselves while they live their new lives."
Unfortunately, not all will reach that phase. Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior, and statistics prove it. Cato said victims leave their abusers, but will go back seven to nine times.
"That's OK. It's their choice. But we're there if they decide to leave again, whether it's five days later, or five years. We don't judge," Cato said.
Catholic Charities staff recognized Tuesday include Cato, Adelina Betances, Mary Carpenter, Jennifer Goch, Melissa Pulis, Ree Tim, Greg Turek and Rosely Tirado.
Those who spoke at Tuesday's event were Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, county Board of Supervisors Chairman John Thayer, Catholic Charities Executive Director John Nasso, and representatives from U.S. Reps. Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, and Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook.