December 20, 2004
Waking up to domestic volence
By Mario M. Cuomo
The following are edited remarks given by former Governor Mario M. Cuomo, guest of honor, at inMotion, Inc.’s annual Commitment to Justice Awards on Nov. 29, 2004, at the Scandinavia House in New York City. The awards honor the volunteerism of attorneys, legal assistants and individuals who have provided pro-bono legal services to inMotion’s clients — families in crisis, suffering from mostly domestic abuse — throughout the five boroughs of New York.
I’ve been blessed with a long life filled with all sorts of wonderful experiences that have given me a really good look at the world we live in. And I must tell you what inMotion and all your work present is one of the truly admirable aspects of our society.
I didn’t understand a great deal about all of the horrid implications of domestic violence when I was growing up in South Jamaica, Queens, in the middle of the Great Depression.
Every once in a while one of the neighborhood women would come into our small grocery store, bruised; the black and purplish marks on her face revealing that she had lived through another of her husband’s bad nights.
Nothing was ever said about it — at least that we kids could hear. It was treated as just one of the sad realities that went unquestioned. Like being out of work, or having to use the clinic at Queens’ County Hospital or Mary Immaculate because you couldn’t afford a “regular” doctor in those years before Medicaid.
I asked my mother once what happened to Mrs. Bruno’s face. Mama said, “Fatti I fatti tuoi.” ”Mind your own business.”
As I grew older, it was harder to act as if what happened to Mrs. Bruno was none of anyone’s business but her own, especially if a strapping 250 pound head of the family was beating up his harried wife and mother of his children, because he was drunk or “out of sorts,” or because she “provoked” him.
It was harder to accept, not just because I was getting older, but because the America around me was changing.
For our first 150 years the nation hadn’t acted much like a society whose members though a lot about helping one another. There were virtually no programs to help the poor, the sick, the unemployed, the elderly, or the abused, apart from some modest attempts at mutual aid and a few philanthropies. For the mot part, we were a survival of the fittest society.
Then came the Great Depression: a huge part of America was out of work, desperately poor, homeless, hungry — or all of those things. We were jolted into realizing that the whole glorious American experiment in democracy might collapse, unless we learned to share our resource for the good of all. Franklin D. Roosevelt responded with an array of social programs that have become staples of our government. And every president since then has continued the process of sharing benefits and burdens through government. The G.I. Bill, the Marshall Plan, Medicaid and Medicare, public schools and colleges, the highway and space programs, and many more response to obvious needs not met by the market system.
But with all of this — for reasons that have never become entirely clear to me — when it came to domestic violence, it was still pretty much a matter of “Fatti i fatti tuoi.” Mind your own business.”
It wasn’t until 10 years ago that the federal government finally took meaningful action with the 1994 Violence Against Women Act signed by president Bill Clinton. But even then, the help has been meager compared to the severity of the problems.
As you all know so well, today in New York and all over America, acts of brutality victimize hundreds of thousands of Americans, mostly women and children living in fear of the people they depended on for support.
A child cowering under bedcovers as he hears his mother begging for his father not to hit her again.
An adolescent girl desperately trying to find a way to avoid being alone with her father who has molested her for years.
Government spending in many other areas grew steadily — but not for these voiceless victims of domestic violence — notwithstanding the ugly statistics have become frighteningly familiar to our society. The failure of our government to do more to deal with the problems was maddeningly blatant in our recent election campaign. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on commercials and political pleas. But not a single mention of any of thousands of abused “Mrs. Brunos” suffering regular abuse. Why not? Probably because it would not win enough votes.
Politicians looked the other way, but fortunately there were some among us who believed that instead of cursing the darkness it was better to light one little candle. They did and others followed, illuminating the way to relief of dozens — and eventually thousands of victims of domestic violence.
I’m here to join in honoring all of you who have demonstrated the wisdom, the sensibility and the generosity that have eluded our government.
All the lawyers who, believing they have a special obligation to make a contribution to public service, and others who have volunteered to aid the victims of domestic abuse.
It’s difficult to describe accurately the great significance of contributions made by these distinguished New Yorkers.
How do you measure the profound gratitude of a battered woman who has been saved from husband’s cruelty by the intervention of the courts? How do you calculate the value of reassurance, relief, and restored dignity of a woman an child who thought they had been abandoned, when a bright, committed volunteer takes up their cause just because — as St. Ives the Lawyer noted — “It was the right thing to do?”
How much of a difference have you made as an organization when you’ve done it all thousands of times every day — by your eloquent example—convincing other to join your ranks?
What you good people do — without fanfare, without much material reward, or prompting — is an inspiration to me and all who know of your good work.
For that I am deeply indebted, with a particular sense of gratitude to and admiration for your splendid executive director, and founder, Cathy Douglass, with whom this excellent organization would never have been set “inMotion!”
Once it was, it grew steadily and dramatically. And it will continue to grow, relieving pain, protecting against abuse preserving dignity, saving lives and providing inspiration.
Doing it all just because it is right!
Mario M. Cuomo is the former governor of New York State. He is counsel to Willkie Farr & Gallagher.