Leading the fight against domestic violence in Suffolk County

Colleen Merlo, new Executive Director of the Suffolk Colleen Merlo, new Executive Director of the Suffolk County Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Central Islip, in the company's conference room on Friday, August 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / Daniel Rader

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In her early life, Colleen Merlo witnessed a friend being sexually and verbally abused in an intimate relationship. At the time, she didn't know how to help her. "We didn't know there were warning signs," she said.

This June, Merlo, 38, became the first new executive director the Suffolk County Coalition Against Domestic Violence has had in 31 years. "The direct cost of domestic violence, nationwide, is $6 billion, and that includes direct medical costs and indirect costs like lost wages, lost productivity" when abusers try to keep victims from work, said Merlo, who earned her master's in social work at Stony Brook University in 2005.

She said former executive director Jo Anne Sanders is semiretired, but working to build a resource center at the organization to offer entrepreneurial training and returning-to-the-job-market programs, on the theory that women who have their own money are less likely to be victimized.

What are your goals?

I want to make sure our staff are extensively trained to respond to victims. We're also looking at doing bystander training so everyone understands domestic violence and understands that they can play a role in preventing it.

What is bystander training?

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Recognizing the warning signs. And although you may never be an abuser, maybe you can change the way your fraternity brother views women.

Some of the stories your staff deals with are horrific. How do you make sure they stay recharged?

[I encourage] debriefing with co-workers; taking a walk at the end of a day; taking scheduled breaks, yoga, a Friday lunch once a month, so people can talk about things that are important to them besides just work. I have found that when you let people have fun at work, you get more productivity out of them.

How does domestic violence relate to the economy?

Financial stress outside of the home comes into the home. Stress can certainly exacerbate a difficult situation . . . and domestic violence is a lot about power and control. If someone loses [power through losing] their job, they may seek to regain it in a relationship. And when there's less economic opportunity, people stay longer in a bad situation. They don't see any way to get out financially. Two years ago we saw a 30 percent spike in our hotline calls; now we're down about 10 percent since 2012.

What might be a good job that victims of domestic violence can easily transition into?

Typical entry-level jobs in manufacturing, hotel jobs, and we have a vocational component to try and place people with law and teaching degrees. If there's anyone out there who is looking to employ people, I'd love for them to get in touch with us. We definitely have people who are ready to work.

How do you keep your staff safe?

The shelter location is not disclosed, our advocates don't always use their real first or last names, we're careful who we tell where we're going to be, we have security cameras and blocked phone numbers when we call out, and we do safety planning. We also have a really good relationship with the police department.

What are the warning signs that someone's being abused?

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Unexplained bruises, or when a person is frequenting the emergency room. If the person isn't staying in touch with family and friends, has to check in a lot, has to be accountable for every penny they spend . . . Abusers seem very caring and very involved initially, but it quickly can escalate.

If I have a friend in a violent relationship, what do I do?

You have to be careful; you don't want to put the person at more risk. Ask if it is a safe time, and say something like, "I am concerned about you, do you ever feel scared in this relationship?" And certainly encourage them to call the 24-hour hotline: 631-666-8833

Corporate snapshot

NAME: Colleen Merlo, executive director, Suffolk County Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Central Islip

WHAT IT DOES: Provides services and safety to victims of domestic violence, including a shelter, counseling and vocational services, as well as prevention programs

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EMPLOYEES: 35 full time, 5 part time

REVENUE: $1.8 million

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