Advocates who work with domestic violence victims in Connecticut say many times the workplace can be a key to stopping abuse and saving lives. And they say many of the state’s employers could be doing a whole lot more to help.
The law firm of O’Brien Tanski and Young is located right in downtown Hartford.
“We used to be a very open law firm. We didn’t lock the door and people came and went without thinking.”
That’s Nancy Tyler, a partner here. And what happened to her is the reason that the front door at the firm now locks very firmly behind you. Tyler’s case was front page news in 2008 when her ex-husband Richard Shenkman kidnapped her, held her hostage for several hours and then torched their house – a story that was vividly told in a court case in 2011. But Tyler says the disruption to her workplace had gone on for some four years previous to the kidnapping, from the time she filed for divorce.
“One of his goals was to destroy my professional life. Subpoening my partners for depositions, and actually taking their depositions, sending them private information including my tax returns, calling people at the office, showing up unannounced, making all kinds of threats to involve other people at the office in what was going on.”
Michael Rigg is a partner at the law firm.
“We recognized it for what it was right away. We knew it was an attempt to harass and embarrass Nancy.”
He says they offered Tyler support and encouragement to get through the situation, and she confirms that her workplace became a touchstone.
“There’s no way I could have gotten through what I got through without the support of the people here, and I could have understood had they become uncomfortable having me around. This became the place I could go to be safe. It was a place where I felt he had relatively little access to me.”
But even while her employer was sympathetic and made attempts to keep her safe, in the end, Shenkman actually kidnapped Tyler from the lobby of the Hartford office tower, after getting access to her work schedules. Rigg says it points out the critical role the employer can play in domestic violence cases.
“From our point of view we wanted to keep Nancy. We regarded her as an asset, as good for business. And if you want to have good people who are in a bad situation like that, you can’t just sit back and say oh, we’re here for you, good luck and take the afternoon off, or something like that. That’s not good enough.”
Karen Jarmoc is the director of Connecticut’s Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which helps almost 60,000 victims in the state each year. She says the law firm’s sympathetic stance to Tyler’s predicament is unfortunately rare.
“I’m not so sure that employers always see it as something they should be concerned about or necessarily caring about in the workplace. They see it as something that happens at home.”
Jarmoc says even if companies don’t act from a sense of caring and responsibility, they might want to take a look at the bottom line.
“Clearly it has an impact on reduced employee productivity, possibly increased absenteeism. It might lead to increased healthcare costs for a company.”
The nationally acknowledged figure for the annual cost of domestic abuse in terms of medical and mental health services is $4.1 billion – much of it paid by employers.
“In the last two years, my unit has handled over 500 cases of domestic violence.”
In 2004, Detective Deirdri Fishel investigated the murder of Amy Homan McGee, killed by her husband. Fishel is speaking here in a documentary that was made about the case.
“And for a couple of years, all of our homicides in Santer County were domestic violence related. Meaning that if you were not in a domestic violence relationship – pretty safe area. But if you can’t be safe in your own home, does it matter if your community is safe?”
McGee was an employee of Verizon Wireless at the time she was murdered, and the documentary about her case was funded by the company. Verizon’s Laurie Severino says it’s shown regularly to employees – at Verizon’s call centers in Wallingford and Meriden the film was shown six times last year.
“The reason we show this video is to bring out greater awareness – it really hits home when we know this employee was one of ours. We do give out the video to everyone who attends. And our ask is to please share it with others and use this as a means of spreading the word.”
Verizon has developed a position on domestic violence that is seen as a model for other employers. The company encourages workers who are experiencing abuse to come forward. It provides them with support, like a quiet place to make phone calls, resources on where to seek help and time off work to attend court. It also attempts to keep employees physically safe on company premises or coming to and from work, and has even physically relocated some workers who’ve been in immediate danger.
“We look at it as not only a personal issue, but it’s also a business issue.”
Nancy Tyler at O’Brien Tanski and Young says in her long ordeal, her employer made all the difference.
“The ability to have some place to go where people treated you like a normal person and expected normal things out of you, even though all of this is going on around you. It gives you an anchor and a sense of normalcy in the face of chaos.”
The latest fatalities report from the Connecticut Coalition on Domestic Violence says 16 people were killed last year through intimate partner violence. They’re offering training for companies that want to tackle the issue and make an impact on that number.