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Somerset County organization works to stymie domestic violence

An average of 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

For more than 40 years, Safe+Sound Somerset has worked to combat that statistic.

The Somerset County organization reaches more than 7,000 people each year through various mediums, which includes trauma-informed care, counseling, crisis intervention, housing, as well as community education and advocacy. Domestic abuse is defined as a pattern of controlling, threatening, degrading and violent behaviors by a partner. Abuse could take multiple forms such as emotional, psychological, physical, sexual and financial.

When it particularly comes to teen dating violence, Michele E. Boronkas, Executive Director of Safe+Sound Somerset, said 1 in 3 teens will experience dating abuse before they graduate high school.

“That is true for Somerset County just as it is true for other places in the nation,” Boronkas said. “We felt a need to be able to begin to speak to middle and high school students as to what healthy relationships look like and how not to become part of that statistic. Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity to hop on a national conversation that amplifies that information to teens.”

In the advent of national movements against sexual violence and abuse such as #TimesUp and #MeToo, Boronkas said she felt it was pertinent to reach a younger demographic.

With an incentive in place, Boronkas said Safe+Sound Somerset began efforts approximately four years ago to create an outreach program for teens. To date, the Safe+Sound Somerset Executive Director said the organization reaches 58% of high schools in the county.

“We have information that ranges from ‘What is a healthy relationship?’ – how it looks, what kind of power someone has in a relation, how you see yourself, a friend or family member in an abusive relationship,” she said.

Boronkas explained that as part of relaying this information to teens, the organization’s representatives open a dialogue with students in classrooms such as questions they might have about relationships and dating abuse.

She listed common questions Safe+Sound Somerset receives from students:

“What do I do when my boyfriend talks about committing suicide because I’m going to break up with him?”

“What do I do when my mom is being hit by my stepfather on a regular basis?”

“What do I do when my friend won’t come out of the house because her boyfriend broke up with her?”

“These are real issues facing teens on a daily basis,” Boronkas said. “So, we go in and teach what they can do in those relationships.”

She said the objective is to not only teach students, but provide them with resources as to who they can call for information, perhaps walk them through a scenario, and reinforce it when they call.

The organization reached more than 4,000 teens last year through the program, according to Boronkas.

She also said that if a school staff member is approached by a student in search of help or information, the program even works to train teachers, counselors and administrators how to help students obtain the necessary resources to address the matter.

“We give an opportunity for students to really talk about what’s on their minds in a way that’s safe and anonymous,” the Safe+Sound Somerset official said. “We found a way to do it in 42 minutes, which is real effective because that’s how long classes are.”

In addition to direct communication and outreach to local schools, Boronkas said the organization also teamed up with the Provident Bank Foundation two years ago to launch a county leadership conference for teens to identify behaviors of healthy relationships. The conference event has since invited more than 300 teens to learn who they are, who they are in relationships and how to impact their towns with important information.

“The conference really sparked the next level of what we are trying to do, which was for teens to take that information and spark action in their communities,” Boronkas added.

Although the Safe+Sound official highlighted multiple achievements and strides of the organization, especially in recent years, she pointed out that there is still a need to be a presence in the community.

“Unfortunately, there is no sign of us not needing to be here anymore,” she said. “Domestic violence incidents and prevalence rates have only increased over the last 10 years – not decreased. We know that in order to not become a statistic of 1 in 4 women or 1 in 5 men of domestic violence, we need to get to teens with information to make better choices early on. We will be here as long as that violence is seen as a resolution to conflict.”

As a pivot point in the county to address domestic violence and raise awareness through education, Boronkas said the organization is currently in search of leaders in other communities as to how they can work together for violence prevention, abuse and sexual assault.

For people interested or in search of more information about Safe+Sound Somerset, call the organization’s hotline phone number: 866-685-1122 or visit its website at www.safe-sound.org.

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