Are you relatively new to this bustling metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York once upon a time, except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and still resides there. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.
Dear Native New Yorker,
I'm worried that the woman who runs the local laundromat in East Williamsburg is being abused. She's had black eyes at least a few times in the past couple of months when my boyfriend and I have gone in to pick up our laundry. If it was only once then it may have been an accident, but the re-occurrence of the black eyes is what's alarming me. She also has a young daughter who is about a year old.
I don't want to stand by and do nothing, but considering I am a customer (albeit a loyal one who's been going there for 4 years+) I don't know what my place is. Is there a service that you can call to put in a anonymous tip or something for them to investigate? I'm also worried because she may be here illegally and I don't want to risk her getting deported or anything if authorities get involved.
What do you recommend?
A native New Yorker responds:
It is commendable that you are worried about your laundry lady's well-being. You are a good customer and a good neighbor! However, this is a delicate situation, and you should not immediately escalate to calling the police or social services. The correct path is to quietly approach her, explain that you're concerned, and ask if she needs any help.
If she assents, you can put her in touch with a domestic violence organization. If she denies that there is a problem, or doesn't want your help, you have to leave it there. The most you can do is let her know you're available to help if she changes her mind later on.
I do think she is being abused. Can you think of another reason a woman would come in to work on three separate occasions with black eyes? But there are a lot of reasons abused women stay with their abusers: threat of death, for instance, or economic dependence, or fear of being deported, or concerns about their kids. Every case is different, and springing outsiders on the victim could probably make things a lot worse if it's not done right- what if the abuser finds out?
I think there are two popular ideas about how New York neighbors relate to each other. Let's call them "Jane Jacobs" and "Kitty Genovese". In the first, everybody knows everybody and all eyes are on the street. If somebody so much as puts the trash in the wrong bin, everybody knows, and justice will be swift—311 gets called. If a wife is getting abused, it's not the police who show up—it's her brother, and the situation is handled- Sonny Corleone style.
In the second, somebody is literally getting raped and stabbed to death on the street, everybody hears, and nobody does anything, because everybody is "minding their own business" or thinks somebody else is dealing with it.
Neither depiction is accurate, of course. New Yorkers calibrate our concern for each other based on many factors. The primary one is how immediate the threat is: if we hear someone screaming bloody murder because they are being stabbed RIGHT NOW, we call the police. We also consider the victim: children, the elderly, the disabled- these groups get special vigilance and we're likely to call in the cops if we think they're being harmed.
There's also the identity of the reporter- in NYC, many professions, including doctors, nurses, psychologists, police officers, and school officials are mandated to report suspected child abuse, and feel a heightened responsibility in similar cases of domestic violence.
In this case, however, you are not a mandated reporter, the victim is an adult, and there does not appear to be imminent danger. As such, you don't have the same responsibility to act. That does not mean that you should feel no desire to help: assisting victims is a natural and very human urge. Just do it in a careful, thoughtful way. If your support is rebuffed, you'll at least have the knowledge that you tried to do the right thing, and the good karma that comes from it.
NB: Since this is a serious topic, I asked Gothamist reporter Lauren Evans to reach out to the experts and confirm my advice wasn't completely off-base. This is what they said:
Maribel Martinez-Gunter, Esq, Director, Family Law & Immigration Unit, Manhattan Legal Services:
I wouldn’t recommend attempting to have someone investigate this issue without the woman’s consent. Victims of domestic violence live a life in which an abuser exerts coercive control to remove her opportunities for making safe choices for herself. Instead, I would recommend a different approach. For example, slipping her a small card with the phone number to a confidential provider that can offer her the chance to think through her options can be phenomenally helpful. Leaving an abusive relationship is extremely dangerous. Over 85% of the domestic violence related homicides occur after the relationship ends; only the victim should decide when it is safe to end the relationship. In the interim, a good domestic violence service can assist with safety planning, including how to maximize your chances at safety while embroiled in an dangerous situation and how to plan a safe escape from an abusive relationship. Safe Horizon operates a 24 hour help line that is confidential and free of charge: 1-800-621-HOPE. With regards to her immigration status, no legal services office, city agency, law enforcement authority, hospital or social service agency will report her immigration status to USCIS. If anything, providers will discuss with the victim the possibility of applying for a U visa so that she can legally remain and work in the United States, as a victim of a crime. Domestic violence is a crime, but we have to leave it up to the victim to determine when and what to report to law enforcement. At the core of transitioning from victim to survivor is the ability to make your own choices. We need to respect her right to make her own choices.
Kerry Toner, Supervisor of Legal Programs at Connect NYC:
There are really good reasons that people don't seek action and don't take action that would have the impact of stopping the bruises, whatever that may look like. There's a reason that this person hasn't gotten to a place where she's not coming to work with bruises. But I think that domestic violence is a very complicated social issue, and we have a lot of personal biases that work against victims, and we also offer really, really incomplete responses as a society to domestic violence.
I think the most important thing here is for the person to express her support, and I know that bystanders don't always find that helpful, but from my perspective--I've been doing domestic violence for 11 years--and I just feel really strongly that the most important thing that all of us can do is to just speak out against it, offer support, but also recognize the complexity that people experience with domestic violence, and not come to it with a mentality of "you should respond in a particular way" or "I want to help you, this is what I can do." There's more importance to recognizing that there is a reason a person hasn't done those things.