Panel Discussion to Promote Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Reading — October 11, 2023 — Last night, state Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) and state Rep. Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz (D-Berks) hosted United Against Abuse: A Domestic Violence Panel Discussion in conjunction with SAFE Berks at Reading Area Community College’s Miller Center for the Arts.

The panel featured domestic violence survivor and RACC Instructor Norma Castro, SAFE Berks Managing Director of Community Engagement Stacey Jordan and Berks County Assistant District Attorney Amanda Sobotka. RACC President Dr. Susan Looney and Luis Serrano also spoke at the event.

Serrano shared the story of his mother, who was tragically killed during a domestic violence incident. On June 25, 2009, Serrano’s mother, Maria Serrano, was attacked, raped and set on fire by her former boyfriend. She suffered burns to 60% of her body and passed away 45 days later from acute respiratory distress syndrome. 

Serrano noted that there were no warning signs in his mother’s case. He urged the audience to act if they see signs of abuse and utilize community resources.

“My message to you guys today is if you see any signs of domestic violence, if you hear any signs of domestic violence, do not be afraid to speak up,” Serrano said. “If you have a relative, a friend, a coworker that you know is being abused mentally or physically, SAFE Berks is here. Or call the police. That’s what they are there for. These organizations are here to help.”

When asked about potential signs of abuse in a relationship, Castro cited manipulation and intimidation as common red flags and said small gestures like pinching and hair-pulling can lead to escalations. Castro said her son’s safety is what ultimately prompted her to seek help escaping her abusive relationship.

“The abuse was always there,” Castro said. “I was always asked when I sought help what I did wrong, which made me feel like I was triggering something. I had a son, and as my son was getting older and I realized my son might end up being a victim and getting hurt, I knew I had to get him out.”

Castro went to SAFE Berks for help and was able to leave the relationship, go back to school and start a family.

“It was scary, and I lost all my materialistic things, but I was able to start a new life and educate myself on what a healthy relationship looks like.”

For individuals in an abusive relationship, telling their partner they are leaving can be a flash point. Jordan was asked how SAFE Berks can help individuals make that break.

“Every individual is different, every situation is different, every abuser looks different, but one of the services we offer is safety planning, and that is available to folks 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year,” Jordan said. “We have a trained advocate on the other side of a hotline or a text line that if someone is exploring their options of leaving the abusive relationship, they can talk to them about gathering some things, putting it somewhere safe, having a neighbor or a sign that lets people know they are trying to escape.”

Jordan stressed that every circumstance is different, so the resources provided vary. She emphasized that no matter the situation, SAFE Berks can help.

“The message here is that we are here and able to assist folks and kind of walk through that process the whole way, the whole journey.”

A member of the audience submitted the following question: If a rape charge can still go through and lead to a conviction if there is no DNA or other evidence? Without hesitation, Sobotka said yes and encouraged victims to contact law enforcement regardless of the circumstances.

“I don’t care when this happened to you. I don’t care how old you were. I don’t care where it happened. I want to hear about this,” Sobotka said. “It’s not for you to worry about that stuff. That’s my job to worry about that and to figure out how I can help you.”

Sobotka added that it’s common to have cases that lack DNA evidence, and bringing charges can still be successful.

“Trust me, we will help you, and we can prosecute those cases.”

Besides raising awareness for domestic violence, Schwank said the event’s goal was to stand in solidarity with survivors and show that community groups are ready and willing to help.

“You would think that after years and years, we could freely and openly discuss domestic violence,” Schwank said. “Yet there is still a stigma where people don’t feel comfortable talking about what occurs behind closed doors. Tonight, we want to raise awareness, but we also want to focus on prevention and let folks know that they aren’t alone.”

A recurring theme during the panel discussion was the need to provide education about domestic and dating violence to people beginning at a young age. Cepeda-Freytiz said this is something she will continue to work on with local school districts and community groups.

“We have to think about how we integrate this type of education and modify it so it’s age-appropriate for students,” Cepeda-Freytiz said. “We have to be able to better equip our community with the tools and the resources they need because this affects all of us at all ages.”

Over 60 community members attended the event, and Centro Hispano provided Spanish translation services. The entire event can be watched here.

Domestic Violence Awareness Month will continue in Berks County on Monday, October 16 with the 22nd Annual SAFE Berks Silent Witness March.