New position to support New Milford residents facing domestic violence

NEW MILFORD — The town is starting to move forward with American Rescue Plan fund allocations, and some of the first to benefit will likely be victims of domestic violence.

Town council members on Tuesday approved a plan to use the federal dollars for a new domestic violence and family advocate position within the social services department.

The position will be a two-year test run that will require $200,000 of the town’s $7.9 million American Rescue Plan funds that it will receive over the next four years.

The motion passed unanimously with little discussion.

Mayor Pete Bass said he was “very excited” about the decision.

The advocate would work in tandem with the police department and social services to be a point of contact for the victims, helping them navigate anything from courts, to housing, to mental health care, to financial literacy and more.

Victims of domestic violence often need more than a safe harbor. They need a total fresh start, which can often involve court dates, new jobs, bills and housing. The advocate would be their point of contact and aid for these issues and more.

While there are still other town approvals needed before the position is filled, Ivana Butera, director of the Social Services Department, said her team is starting to draft up a job description, which will be brought back to the council. Pending approval, the town hopes someone could start in January.

“We’re anticipating that we’ll see some really strong candidates come through this,” Butera said.

After conversations with the police department and community, Bass recommended adding the position as part of New Milford’s COVID-19 recovery efforts. When thinking about how to spend funds, Bass said he is focused on “some of the longer term results of COVID, and domestic violence happened to be one of those.”

“I think it’s really just opened up the conversation about domestic violence in the community,” said Butera. “It was a good fit to bring [this position] into our department.”

Police chief Spencer Cerruto said this year the department has documented 81 domestic violence incidents from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30. Last year, the department responded to 174 domestic disputes, so this year’s stats have trended slightly down in comparison.

Understanding of domestic abuse

While it’s clear the pandemic has had an effect on the financial health of families across the state, sometimes the signs of domestic abuse— whether emotional, financial, or physical— are harder to see from the surface. People may arrive at Butera’s office for financial or housing concerns, but ultimately need help with underlying domestic issues, as well, she said.

And with moratoriums in place for much of the past year and a half, those who would typically come in with housing or domestic aid are only now starting to knock on their doors again.

“These kinds of things are a lot harder to see, and for some, it might be a lot harder to recognize until they come in here for other reasons,” Butera said. “I think the full trends are yet to be seen, but we have started to see some things.”

The new advocate will work in tandem with community partners like New Milford police and the Women’s Center of Greater Danbury.

“I support the position, as its focus is to help victims of domestic violence and families with various social service needs,” Cerruto wrote in an email to Hearst Connecticut Media.

In an early October Facebook post, Bass shared a Domestic Violence Awareness month video that features a local mother of four, Megan Storms, who talks about extricating herself from a dangerous home environment.

“My first step to getting myself and my children out of the unsafe environment that we were in was a phone call to 911,” Storms says in the video. “I understand that first step is extremely difficult, but I promise you, it is worth it.”

Bass made his own appearance in the public service announcement.

“If you know someone or you are someone that has been affected by domestic violence, please reach out. We want to make sure that each and every resident in New Milford feels safe.”

Bass said that after posting a video on domestic violence with Storms on Facebook, he had three young women reach out to ask about services.

“It was really a telltale sign,” he said. “They didn’t know where to turn.”