More Links in News & Events

For Koreans and Hispanics, a voice against violence

By Tom Davis

Mitch Schonfeld wants to rid the world of domestic violence. To do that, he spends much of his time dispelling myths.

One is that domestic violence and mental illness don't overlap. They do.

The other is that domestic violence is "something not always frowned upon" in certain cultures.

It is, he says. And it must be.

As president and CEO of the Bergen Family Center, Schonfeld has established a program that has served as his myth-buster. He and his staff provide the region's only domestic violence services for Korean and Hispanic women in their native languages.

In its Hackensack offices, the center is assisting 15 to 20 clients a week - many of whom suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as they struggle to break from abusive relationships. With counselors and a psychiatrist on staff, Schonfeld's goal is to empower women accustomed to being submissive.

"We're hoping to change the norm of what's expected," he said.

The century-old center, which also has offices in Englewood, was awarded an annual $80,000 federal grant eight years ago to serve the region's sizable Asian and Hispanic populations. Both cultures were under-served in the area of domestic violence, the center says.

"There was nothing for them before," said Sheila Mack, director of the center's clinical services.

But there was demand - a lot of it. Christie Huh, president of Korean-American Church Women United of New Jersey, estimates that as many as one out of three families in the Korean-American community experience domestic violence. Many victims don't know whom to contact or where to go to obtain services, she said.

When they find the right agency, they may get bogged down in bureaucracy, she said. "We work very closely with the Bergen Family Center when we work with the community," Huh said. "That system has been very good for our organization."

What's amazing, the center says, is that it has made progress despite having a limited budget. It employs only four part-time social workers, counselors and a psychiatrist. The $80,000 federal grant represents only 3 percent of the organization's annual budget.

But the staff does what it can, and values the one-on-one meetings they have with clients.

In its Banta Place offices, clients meet with social workers, counselors and interpreters who speak Spanish or Korean. They help develop a safety plan for each client and then refer them to agencies that can provide them with housing and other services.

"The first thing you do is make sure they're safe," Mack said. "Then you go on to other things."

The center meets with its clients on a weekly basis, usually in 45- to 50-minute sessions. They meet in group sessions, or one-on-one in small rooms with the door shut. Their identity always is confidential.

The center recognizes that many of its clients struggle to find baby sitters. They respect that, and allow clients to bring their children. Some rooms have crayons, markers and other toys available.

"We try to work with children, to help them see it [domestic violence] is not normal," Schonfeld said.

In each session, the counselors act as a sounding board. They offer advice, but they don't preach. Mainly, they're giving clients an outlet they never had before.

Years ago, talking about domestic violence was taboo. But the center, whose original 1898 mission was to assist immigrant mothers, has responded to changes in the social environment over the past 30 years.

Working closely with rape crisis centers and agencies that serve the Korean and Hispanic populations inspired Schonfeld to create the domestic violence program. Both populations have grown rapidly, and the demand for services has increased.

"We haven't changed the mission of working with the newest arrivals to America," he said.

The clients - most of whom have shown progress - appreciate that somebody can talk to them in their native language. That's why they come back for more.

"We know the demand is there," Schonfeld said. "There are no social or ethnic boundaries [in domestic violence]. It's in all cultures and all groups."

Anyone interested in seeking help from the Bergen Family Center should call (201) 342-9200.

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top