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Goal of helping one person led to leadership of Safe Futures

New London — Katherine G. Verano started volunteering at Safe Futures 23 years ago with the goal of helping at least one person involved in an abusive relationship.

Now, she is settling into her new role as the executive director of the regional nonprofit agency that provides services each year to hundreds of domestic violence and sexual assault victims.

In the 1990s, Verano left a career in banking to do something she was passionate about after a co-worker was fatally stabbed by her husband. She knew she couldn't change what happened, but hoped she could prevent somebody else from becoming a murder victim.

"In 23 years, I have never looked back," Verano, 60, of Waterford said Friday during an interview in her third-floor office at Safe Futures' offices in downtown New London.

Verano started with the agency as a volunteer when it was still known as the Women's Center of Southeastern Connecticut. Her first role involved taking calls from victims on the 24-hour hotline. She landed a paying job as a court-based advocate for victims, and steadily added skills and responsibilities over the next two decades.

She worked with police, court staff, medical providers, lawmakers, social workers and school administrators to instill a deeper understanding and more unified response to a pervasive problem that had long been minimized or misunderstood.

The agency evolved, too, changing its name to Safe Futures in 2012 to better reflect that it serves women, children and men. Several years ago, the phrase "batterer" was replaced by abuser or partner. Victims did not want to be described as "battered women," Verano said, and domestic abuse goes beyond physical contact.

Verano said she is encouraging her daughter, college sophomore Kaitlyn Berkel, to follow her heart and pursue a career in social work, even if she won't make as much money as she would have in her original career choice. Verano said her own second career choice has proved more rewarding than banking.

"It never feels like I'm going to work," Verano said. "There's so much going on. It's exciting."

One of the immediate concerns she faces in her new role is keeping Safe Futures funded during lean times. Its $1.5 million annual budget is subsidized by state agencies, including the Department of Social Services and Office of the Victim Advocate, and federal agencies like the Office of Violence Against Women, as well as donations.

Last year, the 15-bed shelter served 170 people. It was at 116 percent capacity all year, Verano said, so Safe Futures paid for 46 nights of housing in other safe locations for clients.

Safe Futures has two 24-hour hotlines, an emergency shelter and transitional living programs for families working to rebuild their lives. The agency also provides legal assistance, counseling and advocacy, case management, support groups and educational programs for schools and community groups.   

Despite budgetary constraints, Verano said she would continue to work toward her longtime goal of opening in southeastern Connecticut a Family Justice Center similar to one in Bridgeport. She said the center would provide wraparound services for clients who need help with multiple issues, including legal problems, counseling, housing, employment and education.

Laura Mooney of Lyme, president of the Safe Futures' board of directors, said the board hired an interim director for six months after the previous executive director, Catherine Zeiner, left to become chief operating officer of the YWCA of Hartford. Though the directors wanted to look at external and internal candidates, Mooney said they also wanted someone who was familiar with the organization and its work.

Verano, whose most recent title was director of client services, was approached about the job. She gave a presentation to the board outlining her visions for the future of the agency, and the board voted unanimously to promote her to executive director. 

"Kathy Verano's work has touched many areas, and she's highly respected locally," Mooney said during a phone interview. "She's intelligent. She's gracious. She has wonderful skills with people and excellent contacts."

Karen Jarmoc, president and chief executive of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an umbrella organization comprising Safe Futures and 17 other agencies, said Verano has established herself as a leader across the state, particularly as a statewide trainer of the Lethality Assessment Program. That program is a victim screening tool now used by most Connecticut police agencies to determine whether a victim is at imminent risk of being harmed and to get them immediate help.

Jarmoc said Verano is a tireless victim advocate, understands how to conduct fundraisers and is strong on policy issues.

"She knows how to talk to lawmakers about the meaning of these services and how impactful and critical they are," Jarmoc said. "That's another way in which she is going to be highly effective."

Last year, while testifying in Hartford in support of a law requiring gun owners to turn in their weapons if they are the subject of a temporary restraining order, Verano, who herself has a permit to carry firearms, said she used a personal story she had never told before to illustrate the importance of the proposal. She told of how, when she and her siblings were children, her father, a pistol safety instructor, took out his gun during a hard time in the household and told Verano's mother, "Just shoot me."

The bill was passed into law, and Verano said legislators told her afterward that her story had been convincing.

This session, the domestic violence coalition is seeking to add suffocation as an element to the criminal charge of strangulation in recognition that abusers, who frequently attempt to strangle their victims, also often try to stop victims from breathing by holding their nose, covering their mouths or putting a pillow over their faces. Also, Verano said, the coalition is seeking to strengthen the language in the bill that defines stalking.

Senior Assistant State's Attorney Sarah E. Steere, who prosecutes defendants on the domestic violence docket at the Broad Street Courthouse in New London, has been working with Verano for years on roundtables and training sessions involving police and other stakeholders. Lately, they are collaborating with Dr. William Horgan, medical director of emergency services at The William W. Backus Hospital, to train doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians throughout the state to recognize and respond appropriately to symptoms of strangulation in their patients.

Steere said when she thinks of Safe Futures, she thinks of Verano. Last year, 37 percent of the cases disposed at the Geographical Area 10 courthouse were identified by police as domestic in nature, Steere said. The role of victim advocates, which Safe Futures provides the court, is crucial, Steere said. Verano, who worked in the position for years, "set the standard" when she held the position.

"Kathy has been very big in terms of seeing what we can do to put families back together again and improve relationships," Steere said. "When she became executive director, I said, 'Are you still going to be here in the trenches with us? She said, 'Absolutely.'"

Groton Long Point Police Chief Jeffrey Nixon, a member of the Safe Futures board and longtime collaborator with Verano, said Verano has been a key player in creating a multidisciplinary approach to helping victims.

"It's not just looked at as, law enforcement's over here, judicial's over there and victims are in another spot," Nixon said. "It's bringing everybody together for a superordinate goal, the betterment of victims or making victims whole again."

k.florin@theday.com

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