For Jennifer Neary, program director at Connect to End Violence, the Island’s center for rape crisis and domestic violence response services, there are two primary misconceptions about relationship violence on the Island.

“The biggest misconception is that it doesn’t happen here,” Ms. Neary said. “And that it’s an anger problem. It’s not an anger problem, it’s a choice.”

With an expansion of services in recent months and a widespread cultural conversation about relationship violence, the number of clients at the center seems on track to increase significantly this fiscal year. Ms. Neary said that is a good thing.

“I don’t think there’s an increase in violence, just an increase in people talking about it,” she said. “This means people are reaching out to get support.”

Organization helps organize numerous events to raise awareness. — Jeanna Shepard

In fiscal year 2018, Connect, a program of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, had more than 2,400 contacts with clients. They served 228 individual people (including 22 who primarily spoke Portuguese). while another 108 one-time callers reached the 24-hour hotline.

This year since July, 144 clients have already been served, including 21 who primarily speak Portuguese. The staff at Connect are at the hospital when a victim of sexual assault is admitted. They are at the courthouse when someone is seeking an abuse prevention order, or testifying against their abuser. They meet regularly with Island law enforcement, and are always on the other end of their 24-hour hotline.

Connect also makes contact with hundreds of community members every year through prevention, education and outreach events.

“We make ourselves present so we can be there for everyone,” said Heather Arpin, education and prevention coordinator for the organization. “Being present lifts barriers.”

Ms. Neary said they see a spike in violence in the summer months when the population swells dramatically, a fact that seems counter to the carefree atmosphere on an Island full of vacationers.

“A lot of times, people think, I’m going to leave my problems behind, but there is a lot of violence when people are on vacation here,” she said.

Winter on the Island brings its own set of challenges.

“In the off season, it’s much more isolating,” Ms. Neary said. “There are not as many supports. There are financial stressors. It’s about that control over another individual, so if someone is feeling they don’t have control over [other aspects of their life], that can be a contributing factor.”

Support is available to survivors and non-offending partners of all ages and genders. An adult man who has flashbacks to the rape he experienced as a child, a high school student whose boyfriend controls who she talks to and how she dresses, a college student visiting the Island who is sexually assaulted while on a date, a 72-year-old woman whose caretaker limits her access to supports and steals her medication, a woman with two children who has been financially controlled and physically assaulted for years by her husband. All have sought support at Connect.

In July, the center, which was known as women’s support services until 2008, received expanded Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding, allowing for the addition of a clinician on staff who can help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, complex trauma, depression and anxiety as a result of victimization.

The funds also allowed Connect to hire a part-time child advocate, offer a legal clinic and offer clinical services for children who have witnessed violence. All services at Connect are free and confidential.

Ms. Neary and Ms. Arpin define domestic violence broadly as a pattern of behavior in which one partner tries to have power or control over another. They said most abuse they see falls under the category of psychological and emotional violence. When supporting survivors, Connect focuses on what Ms. Neary calls the empowerment model. The staff are trained to listen to survivors’ stories and support them as they make their own decisions, not tell them what they need to do next.

“We’re not here to define what someone’s relationship is. We meet people where they are,” Ms. Neary said. “We believe that survivors are experts in their own story.”

Often that means supporting people who for many reasons want to stay with an abusive partner. For some survivors, just having a relationship with a staff member at Connect and having the hotline number saved in their cell phone is enough to feel safe. For others, knowing they have a way to escape from their home in the event of a violent situation is sufficient. That could mean knowing a neighbor is aware of the situation, or having a ladder to be able to get out from a second story window.

The staff understand more than most the challenges of getting out of an abusive relationship. On the Island, where there is little anonymity, the small-town spotlight can be discouraging for those who want to take action.

“It takes an average of seven tries for a woman to leave an abusive relationship, and there’s the most chance of violence when she is leaving,” Ms. Arpin said.

Ms. Neary and Ms. Arpin said in addition to supporting survivors, part of their mission is educating the wider community about relationship violence.

Ms. Arpin assists the high school gudiance department in leading the Stand With Everyone Against Rape (SWEAR) program, which relies on young male leaders to facilitate discussions about toxic masculinity and rape culture. Lessons facilitated by Connect are part of health education curriculums in Island schools in grades seven through twelve. This year, they are expanding outreach to the fifth and sixth grades as well.

They also organize a domestic violence walk, a sexual assault awareness walk, and the annual LadyFest music festival among other events.

Ms. Neary and Ms. Arpin said they are inspired by the community support, compassion and resilience they see on a daily basis.

“Every time a survivor walks in the door, the amount of strength, we are in awe,” Ms. Arpin said. “We’re learning every day, and we’re learning from survivors.”

Emergency services staff at Connect are available 24/7. Call 508-696-7233 (SAFE).

First in a series.

The Gazette annual subscription promotion this year will benefit Connect to End  Violence.