Making noise about the ‘silent crime’

Hitting the streets: Sarah Flatto hands out informational
brochures during an outreach event in Chinatown.
(Photo: Matthew Sussman)

By Gary Francoeur

In 2013 alone, police in New York City responded to over 280,000 domestic violence incidents. That’s an average of 765 calls each day – or roughly one every two minutes. And that only includes the victims, most of them women, who were able to reach out for help.

Yet despite these macabre statistics, many of us still turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the violence next door, thinking of it as a brutal but private family matter. But not so for Sarah Flatto, BA’09, who has devoted her career to increasing access to education, safety and services for those marginalized by crisis and violence.

“Destructive violence happens through power, control, and a lack of respect for humanity. That’s true in the case of something as catastrophic as genocide, but also in something as intimate as domestic violence,” she says. “There is something at my core that makes me want to work towards a society where people don’t have to live in fear.”

Flatto is the director of programs and outreach for the newly minted Manhattan office of the New York City Family Justice Center, a safe haven that offers civil legal, social and criminal justice services for victims and survivors of intimate partner violence, human trafficking, elder abuse, and sex crimes– all free, confidential and available under one roof. Family Justice Center clients and their families experience harmful physical, emotional, sexual, and financial abuse.

As part of her job, she works directly in communities across the borough, running a gamut that includes transit hubs, street fairs, cultural events and beauty salons to provide people with vital information about victim’s rights and the center’s services. She also collaborates closely with first responders such as hospitals, clergy and community-based organizations to ensure that the center’s important message reaches as many people as possible, including under-served groups such as new immigrants, low-income and lesbian gay bisexual transgender queer (LGBTQ) communities.

“Our goal is simple: we want people to know that there is help available no matter what their situation is,” she says.

That help can include providing victims, often with children in tow, with comprehensive advocacy: counseling and support groups, emergency shelter and affordable housing, job readiness, public benefits, immigration, and legal assistance with family court, criminal complaints and orders of protection.

It is a job laden with challenges, but also the opportunity to make a real difference. Based in the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence in partnership with District Attorney’s Offices, community and city agencies, the NYC Family Justice Centers have served over 100,000 people in need since 2005 in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Since opening its doors to the public this past March, the Manhattan center receives over 150 weekly client visits.

Working for the Family Justice Center seems like a natural fit for the Manhattan-born Flatto. Her interest in building healthier and safer communities is inspired by her family, who as Jews were forced to flee from Nazi Germany to New York City. Guided by social justice values, she has been involved with community service since she joined the girl scouts at age six. In elementary school, she helped organize a supply drive for Kosovo refugees. After the 9/11 attacks hit so close to her family, she was active in the peace movement and started a high school human rights club. Building upon that experience, at age 13 she started to volunteer with the Operation Hope community shelter in Connecticut. During high school she worked weekly in the shelter’s kitchen serving meals to hungry people down on their luck.

That drive to help those in need followed Flatto when she went to McGill, where she worked with the Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office, the Office for Students with Disabilities, and the Office of International Research. Besides additional jobs as a bookstore cashier, receptionist, hospitality clerk and editor, she also interned with the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies and served as vice-president (external affairs) for the International Relations Students’ Association, overseeing community volunteer opportunities for students as well as Junior Peacemakers, an interactive outreach program in local elementary schools.

At the end of Flatto’s second year, McGill gave her the chance to work internationally. Through an internship award from the Arts Internship Office, she spent a summer abroad working with Never Again Rwanda, a human rights organization started by genocide survivors. The experience, funded through philanthropy, enabled her to learn about survivor-centered education by revising the organization’s peacebuilding curriculum and assisting workshops promoting dialogue and political engagement. The internship award also laid the groundwork for future academic scholarships she received to conduct research and study in Pakistan and India.

But what seared into Flatto’s memory most was the incredible resiliency of witnesses and survivors. “One of my colleagues told us, ‘Those who ignore what happened also in a way kill themselves.’ There was this foundational idea that everyone in society must work together to address extreme violence so that they can move on. I found that very powerful,” She says.

After graduating, Flatto returned to New York City, where she most recently managed the citywide community engagement "One NYC One Nation" public/private initiative for over two years at the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Previously, she worked at UNICEF USA and UNICEF Headquarters, an English program for Jewish and Arab youth at Jerusalem’s first integrated bilingual school, and a literacy professional development organization. She credits her experiential learning at McGill, such as the internship in Rwanda and her extracurricular activities, for shaping her aspirations to work in the educational and advocacy spheres.

“I realize that a significant normative shift to challenge pervasive violence and oppression is difficult,” she says, “but providing information for people to make empowered decisions about their own lives can be transformative in itself.”

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