May 21st, 2010 | 6:00 am

Telling Amy’s Story: A Call to Action

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Newseum

Newseum

By Elisabeth Grant (Washington, D.C.)

On November 8, 2001, Amy Homan McGee, Verizon Wireless employee and mother of two, was shot and killed by her husband Vincent McGee in their home in Pennsylvania. Vincent McGee was convicted of the murder and is now serving a life sentence in prison. This was not an isolated moment of violence, but rather the last event after years of abuse. While McGee’s story is shocking and sad, what is more disturbing is that her life, and death, are like so many other victims of domestic abuse.

Domestic violence lives in darkness. In shame, in isolation, and in silence. To shine a light on what happened to McGee, and to illuminate the issues of domestic violence across the country, Penn State Public Broadcasting, with funding from the Verizon Foundation, put together Telling Amy’s Story. The film celebrates the times family, friends, and law enforcement stepped up and reached out to McGee. But it also highlights the many missed opportunities to stop the domestic violence in her life.

Telling Amy’s Story reached an audience of public officials, advocates in the fight against domestic violence, and the media on Tuesday, May 18, 2010 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Before the screening of the movie numerous speakers took part to educate and open the dialogue on domestic violence.

Numerous higher-ups from Verizon were in attendance to show their support and commitment. McGee was a valued Verizon employee and her death, says Kathryn Brown, Verizon Senior Vice President of Public Policy Development and Corporate Responsibility, was “a death in the family.” Dan Mead, Chief Operating Officer, helped spearhead Verizon’s support of this film, which initially was a training program project to educate others on domestic violence. Mead also worked with Steve Garban, Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Penn State, who spoke about Penn State Public Broadcasting’s role as “a national leader in public service media.”

Verizon has actually made domestic violence prevention one of its key corporate responsibility issues, with the Verizon Foundation awarding nearly $5 million in grants last year to support domestic violence prevention. According to its website, the company also sponsors “an annual national domestic violence prevention summit and, through the Verizon HopeLine program, provide[s] mobile devices and minutes to help victims get back on the road to independence and recovery.”

Telling Amy’s Story

Telling Amy’s Story begins with an introduction from actress Mariska Hargitay. You may know her as Detective Olivia Benson from NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU). In that show she is a tireless advocate for victims of abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence. But her advocacy has tumbled off the screen and into real life. Once on the show Hargitay started receiving a different kind of fan mail – letters where women confessed abuse. Moved by these letters, and her role on SVU, Hargitay created the Joyful Heart Foundation (JHF), an organization that offers retreats and community programs to help heal those who have survived abuse.

The majority of Telling Amy’s Story features Detective Deirdri Fishel, who narrates and leads viewers through moments in McGee’s life and her relationship with her husband. Detective Fishel is an experienced law enforcement officer who has been fighting domestic violence through investigation, prosecution, training, and speaking appearances for the past 15 years. Through the film she recognizes the many instances when McGee reached out for help and her community supported her. But Detective Fishel also points out the failures in the court system and the moments when others may have been able to do more. After McGee’s death in the film, Detective Fishel states that while the ending of McGee’s story is fixed, we must look to “what we can do as a community to change the ending for another victim.”

The film concludes with Mariska Hargitay and Sheryl Cates, of the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH), discussing domestic violence in America. Cates shares the information that 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence sometime in their lives, and that while men can be victims too, 85% of domestic violence is committed against women. Both Hargitay and Cates offer suggestions on how to reach out to women you may think are involved in abusive relationships. First off, try to avoid passing judgment and respect the difficult decisions a victim must make. Then, just listen. Sometimes listening and believing someone are as powerful as getting them to more resources. Finally, act. Find out what resources are available (the Telling Amy’s Story web site offers an extensive list of organizations one can contact), elect public officials who care about these issues, and connect with your community through volunteering activities. But whatever you do, don’t ignore it. Cates stresses that “silence can be just as powerful as approval.”

Newseum Event

The event began with Mariska Hargitay who recognized the partners who made the film possible and spoke more in depth about the letters she received when she joined the TV series Law and Order: SVU. She explained how the letters contained stories from women who were “desperate to be heard, to be believed, and to be healed.” And how those letters led her to start the Joyful Heart Foundation, which has helped 4,000 people since it was founded in 2004.

Hargitay was followed on stage by her husband, Peter Hermann, who is also an actor as well as a board member at Joyful Heart. He introduced the other speakers throughout the evening and expressed his awe and admiration for his wife’s passion to help victims of domestic violence.

In addition to the individuals from Verizon’s leadership, notable government officials were also present for the screening of the film. Thomas J. Perrelli, Associate Attorney General of the United States and third ranking official in the Justice Department, spoke on how domestic violence is present in every community, so no matter who he is speaking to, whether it is a group from the military, teens, college students, the disabled, or the elderly, domestic violence issues are relevant. He remarked that “prevention is as critical as responding to the needs of victims,” and that domestic violence education must begin with the young.

Lynn Rosenthal also took the podium. She is the first ever White House Advisor on Violence Against Women. She noted that the Obama administration has allotted $730 million in funds for services for victims of domestic abuse, including legal protection, assistance in finding housing, and more. As she looked to the audience she said, “we are here tonight on behalf of those whose stories we know, and for those whose stories we don’t.” She concluded with words of hope for the future, and a poem that hangs on the wall of many shelters: “So I fight with one hand and love with the other… In my dreams though, I love with both hands and the fighting is over.”

See the Film

Telling Amy’s Story will be airing on a number of Public Broadcasting Stations. You can also purchase the film online. Other updates and more information is available on the Telling Amy’s Story Facebook page.

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