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Domestic violence agency wants public to know that free, confidential services are available

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New London — The staff at Safe Futures, which provides services to domestic violence victims in 21 southeastern Connecticut towns, is reeling from the news of yet another domestic violence homicide in the region this past weekend.

They want to help.

Hours before a 22-year-old man was arraigned Tuesday on charges that he fatally stabbed his partner, 33-year-old Jason Beck, at an apartment in Norwich on Saturday, Safe Futures' Chief Executive Officer Katherine Verano assembled key staff at the agency's Jay Street office. The staff wants the public to be aware of the wide array of free, confidential services available to victims and to know how hard they work to remove the barriers that prevent people from making the first call, or even the 10th call.

"Safe Futures is here, and we're not going to judge, even if you don't leave" the abusive relationship, Verano said. "We're going to safety plan with you."

Stabbings are becoming more frequent, and the advocates say potential victims can protect themselves by avoiding the kitchen, where knives are kept. Other safety planning techniques include staying in a middle room where there is more than one exit, not going into a bathroom or other room where it's possible to get  trapped, and keeping keys and important items hidden outside.

The agency served 7,500 people in 2019 with a budget of $2.5 million and the help of volunteers and a generous community. It is continuing to expand and soon, Verano says, will be a full service Family Justice Center.

Safe Futures can provide services in many languages and accommodate people of any age and their pets, too. Though the police and Department of Children and Families are there to help, Verano said they don't have to get involved in many cases.

Formerly known as the Women's Center of Southeastern Connecticut, the agency changed its name to Safe Futures in 2012 so that young people and men felt welcome as well as women. The agency provides shelter and transitional living services, one-on-one and group counseling, victim advocacy in criminal and civil court cases, assistance with living expenses and transportation, residential treatment for victims struggling with substance abuse, prevention programs in schools and a summer camp for children affected by domestic violence.

An advocate works out of area police departments, and Safe Futures trains officers to identify potentially lethal cases and steer victims toward help. They have a therapy dog, Luna, and therapy cats, too.

Many agencies offer domestic violence services, but the staff at Safe Futures are all certified and, by law, the content of the agency's support group discussions are confidential and cannot be subpoenaed for use in court.

Every time somebody dies in a domestic violence incident, staff members assess how they can improve their services and reach more victims. The agency was working with a victim in only one of the five domestic violence homicide cases that have occurred in or are related to the region in the past 15 months.

Robert Parise, 63, of New London, who was fatally stabbed, police say, by his former partner Christopher Petteway on Oct. 4, 2018, had sought help from Safe Futures. Parise's survivors have become strong supporters of Safe Futures as Petteway's case works its way through the court system.

The agency only met with the family members of 25-year-old Corina Rodriguez, sometimes identified as Corina Zukowski, after she was fatally stabbed at the Starlight Inn in Niantic on Dec. 11, 2018. The family says her alleged killer, Avery Hallbrooks, had been controlling and abusive. He is incarcerated and is expected to notify the court on Feb. 19 whether he will accept an offer to resolve his case with a guilty plea rather than go on trial.

In Stonington, police said Brandia Irvin, 41, was fatally stabbed by her live-in boyfriend, Carlton Henderson, on Nov. 30, 2019. Her 12-year-old son witnessed the stabbing and ran to a neighbor's house and said the man he calls "Chico" was killing his mother. Irvin had not sought help from police or Safe Futures.

Details are still emerging in the case of the Todt family, formerly of Colchester. Anthony Todt, a physical therapist facing legal and financial ruin, was charged earlier this month with killing his wife, Megan, and their three children, Alex, 13, Tyler, 11, and Zoe, 4, and the family dog, Breezy, at the family home in Celebration, Fla.

The Safe Futures staff said that contrary to popular opinion, people don't just "snap" and kill their loved ones. Usually there are signs of abuse, including manipulative behavior and isolation of victims.  

Fenty Lee, director of housing programs, said families in some cultures will judge or disbelieve relatives who become victims of domestic violence, but Safe Futures can find ways to help.

Violence among same-sex couples is a growing concern. National statistics indicate that one in four women and one in seven men will become victims of physical abuse.

"No matter how you identify, we're here for you," said Melissa Porter Zaitchik, Safe Futures' director of development and communications.

Safe Futures has joined the other 17 member organizations of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence in the centralized CTSafeConnect hotline system. Those who are seeking help can call (860) 701-6000, or call or text (888) 774-2900 24 hours a day. Walk-ins are welcome Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Safe Futures' offices at 16 Jay St. in New London or 241 Main St., Norwich, 2nd Floor, Room 102.

"We want it to stop," Verano said. "We're not just here to put a Band-Aid on it. We want to change the culture."

k.florin@theday.com

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