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Response to Domestic Violence Tragedies in Berks County

Safe Berks

May 21, 2020
Safe Berks

Safe Berks stands in sympathy and solidarity with the family and friends of domestic violence victim Melissa Gonzalez-Torres, 37, who was tragically killed on May 18, 2020, in her residence on Robeson Street, Reading, according to news reports. She was fatally shot by Segundo Torres-Ortiz, 41, her estranged husband, who then fatally shot himself, according to news sources. According to news reports, Torres-Ortiz had recently been released from prison for violating a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order Gonzalez-Torres had against him.

 The social distancing and family isolation required to prevent the spread of COVID-19 can increase risk to victims of abuse. Home is not a safe place for victims of domestic violence. Many adults and children are trapped in their homes with violent abusers.

 Melissa Gonzalez-Torres is the second Berks County woman to lose her life to domestic violence since the COVID-19 health crisis began. Christina Blackburn, 23, of Boyertown, was killed on April 16, 2020, according to multiple news sources.

 Melissa Gonzalez-Torres and Christina Blackburn are no longer here to tell their stories.

 Christina Blackburn was fatally stabbed. According to news reports, the incident took place in the Boyertown residence of her boyfriend, Austin Miller, 23, and he has been charged with first- and third-degree murder, aggravated assault, and possessing an instrument of crime.

 In addition, according to news reports, two other victims in Pottstown, Montgomery County, recently lost their lives to domestic violence; Jaylin Thomas, 24, of Pottstown, was killed April 16; and Mary Hatfield, 71, of Pottstown, was killed on April 8. In both cases, the victims’ intimate partner has been charged with first-degree murder and other charges.

 Throughout the COVID-19 health crisis, Safe Berks continues to provide free and confidential services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault 24 hours a day. All services are available in English and Spanish, and translation will be utilized for any other language needed. For crisis services, including requests for shelter or medical advocacy, call the 24-hour hotline at 844-789-SAFE (7233) or text SAFE BERKS to 20121. Anyone in immediate danger should call 911.

 For Legal questions and concerns, including information about requesting Protection From Abuse (PFA) orders, call 610-373-1206, ext. 107. For Counseling, call 610-373-1206, ext. 606.

 Since the shelter-in-place orders began in mid-March, the Safe Berks Legal Services team has responded to more than 200 calls from local survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Safe Berks attorneys have also provided ongoing legal assistance to more than 50 survivors seeking representation at their final Protection From Abuse (PFA) hearings.

 “We would like to encourage all survivors to continue to contact the Safe Berks Legal Department for assistance,” said Diane Ellis, Esq., Director of Legal Services, who began serving Safe Berks (formerly Berks Women in Crisis) 21 years ago, and has been leading the Department for the past eight years. “We recognize that survivors may be isolated from their support systems now more than ever before, but we are still here to help. You are not alone.”

 “The Legal Department staff has worked tirelessly to develop a streamlined process which allows us to continue to connect with survivors and each other while working remotely,” said Jennifer Sawyer, Legal Advocate Coordinator, who has served in the Legal Department for 22 years. “We have maintained strong relationships with the courts, law enforcement, and other community partners, so that we may provide the most up-to-date information about the many changes to services to all individuals seeking assistance.”

 These Tragic Crimes Do Not Stand Alone

 Unfortunately, domestic violence is much more common than most people realize. According to Safe Berks records, 69 Berks County residents were killed by domestic violence since 1999. Each October, Safe Berks honors and remembers these local victims of domestic violence at our annual Silent Witness March & Dedication.

 According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV), 123 people in Pennsylvania were killed in 2018 by domestic violence. Of those victims, 85 were female, 38 were male, and 57 percent were killed by firearms. According to the PCADV, during the past 10 years, more than 1,600 people in Pennsylvania died from domestic violence related incidents.

 According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), more than 10 million people are abused each year in the United States. One in three women and one in four men experience violence by an intimate partner in their lives, and there are 20,000 calls a day to domestic violence hotlines, according to the NCADV. Women between the ages of 18 and 24 are most commonly abused by an intimate partner.

 Safe Berks, formerly known as Berks Women in Crisis, provides free and confidential services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Last year, Safe Berks served more than 4,000 clients. Our Safe House provided shelter to approximately 800 people, including 400 children.

 End the Stigma

 In order to prevent abuse and save lives, we need an open and honest discussion about domestic violence in our community. We need to end the stigma that surrounds domestic violence. This stigma causes victims to live in fear and silence. This stigma protects abusers. We need to make sure everyone understands that no one deserves to be abused, and that compassionate, free help is available 24/7.

 By talking openly about domestic violence, we can help victims find assistance, and lives can be saved. We need to stop thinking about domestic violence as a personal, private issue, and understand that domestic violence is a community issue. This violence affects all of us. We welcome the help of all members of the Berks community to end domestic violence. Information is available on our website at, as well as on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. We welcome your assistance. To learn more about how you can help Safe Berks, contact Mindy McIntosh, Director of Development, at [email protected].  

 The Safe Berks Education and Outreach Department is providing online learning opportunities for all ages, in English and Spanish, via our Facebook page and other social media platforms. These educational programs aim to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault. For questions specific to Education, email Lisa Tumbleson, Director of Education & Outreach, at [email protected].

 Lethality Assessment Program (LAP)

 Safe Berks works closely with local police departments to serve survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Our Legal Department provides training to police departments on how to utilize the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP). This tool can help police identify situations where violence can quickly become lethal. For more info about LAP or to request training, email [email protected].

 Red Flags of Domestic Violence and Abuse

 It can be very difficult to acknowledge that you yourself, or someone you are close to, is experiencing relationship or family violence. Abusers go to great lengths to control their victim, their interactions, and everyday life. Common red flags of abuse include:

  •         Name calling or demeaning comments
  •         Someone that seems too good to be true early in a relationship; the relationship may advance very quickly
  •         Frequent phone calls or texts
  •         Threatens to harm or kill you, your pet(s) or family members
  •         Blames you for the abusive behavior; does not take responsibility for actions
  •         Prevents you from spending time with family or friends and from enjoying hobbies and other activities
  •         Damages your credit by exceeding limits, purposely not paying bills; may restrict your access to financial resources

Identifying abuse toward others

Knowing if someone you care about is in an abusive situation can be very difficult. However, there are some common warning signs:

  •         Their partner puts them down in front of other people
  •         They are constantly worried about making their partner angry
  •         They make excuses for their partner’s behavior
  •         Their partner is extremely jealous or possessive
  •         They have unexplained marks or injuries
  •         They’ve stopped spending time with friends and family
  •         They are depressed or anxious, or you notice changes in their personality

Abusers are skilled at using power and control over their victims, which can make leaving the situation difficult and dangerous. One of the best ways to help someone in abusive situation is to listen to them. Let them know you care and that free help is available. Help them understand that they are not responsible for, nor do they deserve the abuse. Encourage them to call 911 if they are in immediate danger, to seek the help of an advocate, or to contact Safe Berks. In addition to other services, Safe Berks can offer advice about Safety Planning, the process of creating a plan to keep yourself, children and pets safe while planning to leave an abuser. For more information about Safety Planning, call the Safe Berks 24-hour hotline at 844-789-SAFE (7233) or text SAFE BERKS to 20121.

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