2006-08-17 / Top Stories

Program Makes It Easier To Phone About Trouble At Home

Some of the dozens of donated cell phones fill a desk in Assemblyman Maisel's office.           Neil S. FriedmanSome of the dozens of donated cell phones fill a desk in Assemblyman Maisel's office. Neil S. Friedman By Matt Chaban

Taped to the front of New York State Assemblyman Alan Maisel's office at 2424 Ralph Avenue in Mill Basin is a piece of printer paper em-blazoned with a cell phone caricature and text that requests community residents to donate discarded cell phones.

An item about the cell phone donations has been listed in the Canarsie Courier's Community Guide section for several weeks and "likely affected donations," Maisel said Tuesday.

In a storage room adjacent to Maisel's cluttered desk stands a folding table piled high with bags filled with dozens of cell phones that will soon be offered to victims of domestic abuse.

"It's a very nice thing that people have heard the call," Maisel said. "No-body's getting a tax deduction, nobody's getting a certificate. They're just drop-ping them off."

The cell phones collected by Maisel's office will be taken to the Kings County District Attorney's Office downtown Brooklyn later this week and added to other collections donated across the borough.

The cell phone donations are part of a 10-year-old program initiated by Dis-trict Attorney Charles Hynes as part of larger strategy to combat domestic abuse.

Once they reach Hynes' office, the phones are reprogrammed to dial 911 without monthly fees or service pro-viders. This means the at-risk women, and some men, who accept the phones, have instant access to emergency dispatchers whenever they feel threatened.

"It's really as simple as that," Deirdre Bialo-Padin, chief of the district attorney's domestic violence di-vision, said. She explained during her telephone interview with the Courier that victims tend to receive cell phones only after a crime has been committed against them.

"Police respond to just one incident that's usually just the tip of the iceberg," she said. From there, employees in the district attorney's office sort through details of what is often a long history of violence, leading to solutions, which can include issuance of a cell phone, among other measures.

Bialo-Padin said the crimes her office deals with are "about exercising power and control over another person" and are, more often than not, committed by someone the victim knows, so assailants use their targets' familiar routines against them.

This makes instant access to help all the more important, she said, particularly when conflicts can suddenly materialize. And when those at-risk cannot afford cell phones, the district attorney steps in to provide that additional safety.

Given the programs' benefits, Bialo- Padin was quick to emphasize that the cell phones are not meant as a means of prevention, but instead as a means of action.

She has found that judicial monitoring reduces recidivism, especially when some cell phones are taken away and even destroyed by assailants.

"It's not perceived as changing the core nature of the batter," she added.

As of last September, the last date for which numbers are available, Bialo- Padin said 850 phones have been distributed to 641 participants and 93 calls have resulted in arrests.

But, she added, "you can measure it objectively-the 911 calls-or you can measure it subjectively-it can be empowering."

Part of the reason domestic violence can leave victims feeling so vulnerable is because many people consider the subject taboo.

"Domestic violence is not a popular topic," said Surrogate Judge Frank Seddio, Maisel's predecessor in the 56th Assembly District. "You only hear about it when someone gets killed or severely hurt. Sadly, it's a daily occurrence."

As a retired police officer, Seddio saw the ravages of domestic abuse first hand. When Hynes contacted a number of Brooklyn elected officials about various programs and legislation he was endorsing several years ago, Seddio embraced the cell phone program, which Maisel continued when he succeeded him in February.

Joan Millman, assemblywoman for the 52nd District has also been a staunch supporter of the cell phone program. The support was so strong, she noted, that when a story ran in the New York Daily News, her office re-ceived phones from as far away as Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Maisel, like Millman, sees the cell phone program as a major benefit not only to his constituents but also to the borough as a whole.

Thanks to the commitment of Maisel and his legislative peers, this may not always be the case.

"If we want to have decent communities, people have to be involved in it," he said. "Decent communities don't just happen. People have to fight for them."

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