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Sexual Misconduct

Laura Ahearn of the Crime Victims Center speaks during a press conference to announce a consortium to tackle sexual violence, flanked by from left District Attorney Tim Sini, Legislature Leslie Kennedy, Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Hochul and Legislator DuWayne Gregory. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

Leaders from private and public sectors came together April 20 to form a partnership that would make Randy Newman proud.

“You’ve got a friend in me,” was the message from members of the local business world following the creation of the Long Island Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Consortium, an initiative spearheaded by Laura Ahearn, executive director of Suffolk County’s The Crime Victims Center.

The organizations currently partnering with the Crime Victims Center to form the Long Island Sexual Violence and Response Consortium. Photo by Alex Petroski

As a direct result of the #MeToo social media movement turned global awakening, societal response to accusations of sexual misconduct and crime has undergone a swift change, especially in cases in which the accused is of a high-profile. But lawmakers and advocates for the movement have been asking an essential question since the movement ensnared the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar back in 2017: How will men who are not famous perpetrating acts of sexual violence against victims who need their job to survive truly be held accountable? Ahearn’s consortium may serve as a model in answering that question.

“We asked them to just do one thing to help us prevent sexual violence, and we would be satisfied if that one thing was just to be a member of our consortium, because they’re very busy,” Ahearn said of her pitch to business leaders when trying to rally support for the partnership. “We didn’t want to pressure them, and we didn’t want to ask them for money, because every time they hear ‘not-for-profit,’ they’re like ‘money?’ So instead, what we did is we said ‘just do one thing. Just come to our consortium, give us your logo and you’ll be part of what we’re doing to raise awareness.’ There’s a certain amount of credibility that a big company adds to an organization just working to prevent sexual violence.”

The CVC, Ahearn’s organization, is a not-for-profit organization that has been a relentless advocate for victims of all crimes since the late ‘90s. It assists victims of child sex abuse and rape, provides services to victims of violent crime, and assists elderly, disabled and minor victims of all crime. To form the consortium, Ahearn presented a list of options businesses could incorporate into its standard practices, which if adhered to should make workplaces on Long Island safer for vulnerable members of the workforce.

The list of options businesses were asked to pick from and incorporate to become a member included adding a link to the LISVP consortium on businesses’ websites; providing prevention education and victim services materials in new employee orientation; adding prevention messages to receipts provided to customers; creating public service announcements; hosting training sessions aided by the CVC; and many more.

“All the degradation of women in the workplace that has gone on in the shadows throughout our lifetimes … it’s over.”

— Kathleen Hochul

Organizations signed on to be a part of the consortium so far include Stony Brook Medicine, Altice, Northwell Health, AT&T, Verizon, BNB Bank, Catholic Health Services of Long Island, TRITEC Real Estate Company, Uber, Lyft and many more. Ahearn said in most cases, leaders of the private sector institutions signed on to take more than one step on the list, and that only one organization she reached out to declined to join. She said she hopes to add to the current list of about 40 consortium partners.

Local lawmakers from virtually all levels of government also attended the April 20 press conference to announce the consortium in Hauppauge and voice support for the cause.

“All the degradation of women in the workplace that has gone on in the shadows throughout our lifetimes, whether it’s the insidious, quiet comments, innuendoes, or whether it’s the more blatant abuse — touching or physical violence — it’s over,” New York Lieutenant Gov. Kathleen Hochul (D) said.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) also attended the press conference to voice support for the initiative.

“In government we are often focused on what government agencies can do to help a cause, and often we’re shortsighted, and we don’t look beyond the walls of government,” Sini said. “Laura Ahearn doesn’t make that mistake, and it’s crucial.”

Dan Cignoli, of Coram, found the event invigorating. Photo by Rita J. Egan

While pregnant and riding the subway in New York City, attorney Marjorie Mesidor was grabbed from behind. Despite describing herself as typically abrasive, or as she put it, “the literal bull in the china shop,” in that moment, she froze.

“I became so fearful and so frozen because I wanted to protect my child,” Mesidor said, noting that it was also around the time frequent slashings were being reported in Manhattan. “I’ve thought about that instance more during these #MeToo discussions, and it’s given me a taste of what it feels like to be caught off guard in a moment, and your immediate reaction means everything.”

“There are so many moves made without permission, and it puts us in murky waters and we continue to extend and extend consent.”

— Marjorie Mesidor

The fear that Mesidor — a partner at Phillips & Associates, a law firm that specializes in workplace sexual harassment cases — described is unfortunately common. Women across the world show up for work or ride public transportation or otherwise exist in public knowing their own #MeToo story could unfold at any moment. But like many moved by the worldwide shift in perception created by the movement, the promotion of self-reflection and empowerment in the hopes of amending the culture of objectification is fully underway in the eyes of Mesidor and many other women, especially those elected to serve by the public.

Government officials have shared personal encounters that at times resulted in little to no justice. While noting women’s rights have come a long way in the last century, the women echoed the need for long-term remedies to truly change the culture.

“We are evolving as a society, but it’s going to take leaders to make sure that the attitudes are changing to where they need to be,” said Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who noted the importance of educating the next generation of boys and girls about proper conduct around the opposite sex. “We need to make sure people are held accountable for their actions and behavior, and label what is wrong and what is right — we need educational components available for school districts.”

County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said she is hoping from the movement to see observers of inappropriate sexual conduct empowered to speak out when they see someone being victimized, eliminating the acceptance of things like “locker room talk.” Hahn shared an emotional memory, recalling when a boy grabbed her breasts when she was in fifth grade. She said other students witnessed the incident, but she decided not to speak to a parent or teacher.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) pointed out a bigger problem with Hahn’s story, which included admitting the boy talked about her breasts for months after the incident.

Cindi DeSimone, of Farmingville, aims to teach her twins that both of them are of value. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“She may not say anything, but everyone else around her is watching and not saying anything,” Cartright said. “And then she goes home and says to herself, ‘Well, I guess I’m supposed to let that happen, because everyone else says it happened and no one said anything.’ Are we doing what we need to do to make sure women feel there’s a continued safe space? Because retaliation is very real.”

Mesidor said she thinks a culture fitted around the idea of “going with the flow” when it comes to sexual encounters has contributed to the toxicity.

“When we soften it up and we make it flowery and pretty, we raise boys who don’t know how to recognize consent, who do not ask before leaning in for a kiss,” she said. “There are so many moves made without permission, and it puts us in murky waters and we continue to extend and extend consent. Girls are brought up thinking you should be flirty instead of frigid, not requiring permission for someone to touch or interact with your body. I’m not promoting extremism, that’s certainly not what I’m saying, but we need to recognize the totality of the issue, not only with our laws but with the way we raise our children and what we deem acceptable.”

County Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) advocated for teaching self-esteem, especially to young girls. She said being brought up to stick up for herself worked to her benefit when handling her own incidents of sexual harassment. Kennedy said she was in third grade the first time she was forced to experience inappropriate sexual behavior. While riding her bike in Commack, a man wearing an overcoat in the middle of the summer disrobed to unveil his naked body to her. Kennedy said she raced home to tell her mother, who called the police. Then, years later, while working at a supermarket at age 17, the owner grabbed her breasts.

“We need to make sure people are held accountable for their actions and behavior, and label what is wrong and what is right.”

— Sarah Anker

“Even though I’d lose the perfect hours to help me work around school and sports, I called the guy a pervert and I left,” she said. “We need to teach self-esteem. I think it’s because of my personality, or maybe because I went to Catholic school, we were taught everyone’s body is a temple. By not sticking up for yourself, or by posting promiscuous pictures, you’re saying, ‘Please disrespect me.’”

While some may not want to rock the boat or come off as overly sensitive, Mesidor said women need to look within to help progress the cultural shift currently underway, working as allies for other women.

“Everyone should be self-reflecting and ask themselves, ‘How am I potentially contributing to these types of cultures? What am I seeing that I may not be speaking out on? What am I experiencing that I may not be responding to?’” she said. “And we can’t be letting a man think it’s OK to say something offensive to the next person.”

Kennedy is a proponent of making men aware of the things they say, even if a supposed “joke” might be funny to a woman.

“We should be making teachable moments,” she said. “If you find the joke funny, you laugh, but then you make a comment saying many other women would not find that funny.”

Huntington Town Councilwoman Joan Cergol (D) recalled stories her mother told about her days as a stewardess, hearing how she needed to maintain a certain weight to be able to fly, have her legs checked for stubble and nose for powder, and docks to her pay for failures to comply. A common practice associated with bartenders and waitresses, they also were discouraged to wear wedding rings, ensuring to keep alive an air of availability for male customers.

“It all starts with stories — our own personal stories we can look at and say, ‘Yes, that’s what #MeToo is.’ We’ve come very far, but yet we haven’t.”

— Joan Cergol

At 30 years old, Cergol, then working in a law firm, was called into her boss’s office after hours. According to the councilwoman, he asked her to close the door because he had a personal question. Instead of taking a seat in front of him, she sat in a chair closest to the door, and listened to his question about her and her husband’s preferred birth control method, explaining that the intrauterine device his wife was using was resulting in painful sex for him.

“This was my career, this was a boss who could make or break me, but I told him I wasn’t going to have this conversation, I got up and left, and ultimately took it to the managing partner only to find out this man was doing this to many women,” she said. “It all starts with stories — our own personal stories we can look at and say, ‘Yes, that’s what #MeToo is.’ We’ve come very far, but yet we haven’t.”

By opening up and sharing personal stories and working on new legislation, education and training models, Stony Brook resident Cindy Morris, founder of The Benson Agency, which works to expand on the effectiveness and interests of the nonprofit sector, said she hopes women can stay ahead of the news cycle and seize the powerful moment in time.

“This movement is consciousness raising,” she said. “We need to stand up while this is the topic of the day, and to stay standing up when the next news cycle comes around so it doesn’t go away. The whole goal of this is to draw people in, because this moment in history gives us an opportunity. What we do with it is up to us.”

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As 2017 comes to a close, it is not an overstatement to say that this year we have lived through a revolution. And it is a revolution that is just beginning. Millions of women, drawn by the hashtag #MeToo, have come forth to put their experiences with sexual harassment, assault and rape on the record. Some men also have revealed similar heartbreaking stories of sexual predators that altered their lives. It is as if an enormous dam has broken with the gut-wrenching descriptions pouring out unendingly, toppling icons of power like bowling pins. Just as Betty Friedan started the revolution we call the women’s liberation movement, so this avalanche of sordid encounters that began with revelations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has touched off a revolution but of a much faster pace than the one 50 years or so ago. Social media has helped connect these victims and carry the torch of outrage.

I suppose from the earliest times when men and women have walked the earth, there have been sexual predators. Mostly the predators have been men who were able to exact what they wanted from vulnerable women who needed their protection and support, perhaps for such basics as food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their children. Once women entered the workplace in large numbers, they were often assigned to male supervisors who could advance or block their careers or even take away their jobs.

Those jobs could be in Hollywood, in TV journalism, in large and small offices, in hotels, in politics, in academia, in short anywhere that there might be an imbalance of power leaving one employee vulnerable. What’s different now? The whisper network that warned has become a social network that shames.

Time magazine named the Silence Breakers as 2017 Person of the Year. The hashtag, #MeToo, will go down in history although the movement’s founder, Tarana Burke, was not featured on the cover. Instead the group photo comprised actress Ashley Judd, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, Visa lobbyist Adama Iwu, songstress Taylor Swift and Isabel Pascual, a Mexican strawberry picker who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her family, according to Time. They might have been anyone on the cover, although the famous attract more attention, from the doctoral candidate at a prestigious university who refused her professor’s advances and consequently was denied her degree, to the housekeeper in a hotel who goes about cleaning the bathtubs but never knows when she might be cornered by a guest or supervisor demanding sexual favors.

The first time I personally knew anyone who had been a sexual victim was in college. A close friend was talking about her affair with a professor and was overheard by another student who was having the same experience. The unlikely encounter and some quick conversation revealed the same professor was bedding both women. In a rage, my friend confronted her lover with the words, “You are sick!”

But was he sick? Or was he just acting out the culture in which he had been raised? As Time magazine wrote, “It wasn’t so long ago that the boss chasing his secretary around the desk was a comic trope, a staple from vaudeville to prime-time sitcoms.” Cultures are all pervasive, and where they are not confronted by conscience or mob outrage, they continue.

On the eve of the holidays, let’s focus on a short but delightful segment from the “PBS News Hour” Tuesday night. Women confide to sometimes feeling taken advantage of financially when bringing cars to be repaired, knowing so little about the way cars work. One woman felt tired of feeling a victim, quit her job as an engineer, went to auto-mechanic school and opened up what appears to be the nation’s first all-female auto-repair shop in California. It seems to be a great success. Best of all, she no longer feels a victim. There is a moral here.

Happy and healthy holidays to you and yours!

By Elana Glowatz

Suffolk County is entering obscure territory this year as some sex offenders drop off the state registry and others have lost restrictions on where they can live.

Laura Ahearn has advocated for local governments to have the power to regulate where registered sex offenders live. File photo
Laura Ahearn has advocated for local governments to have the power to regulate where registered sex offenders live. File photo

It was exactly one year ago that the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that local laws restricting where sex offenders could live were invalid, following a lawsuit from a registered offender from Nassau County who challenged his own government’s rule that prohibited him from living within 1,000 feet from a school. Judge Eugene Pigott Jr. wrote in his decision that “a local government’s police power is not absolute” and is pre-empted by state law.

State regulations already prohibit certain sex offenders who are on parole or probation from living within 1,000 feet of a school or other child care facility, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, but the local laws went further. In Suffolk County, Chapter 745 made it illegal for all registered sex offenders — not just those on parole or probation — to live within a quarter mile of schools, day care centers, playgrounds or their victims. But following Pigott’s decision, that law, while still technically on the books, is no longer enforceable.

To make matters more complicated, Jan. 1 marked the beginning of the end for some of the lowest level sex offenders on the state registry.

Offenders are grouped into one of three levels based on their perceived risk of committing another sex crime. On the lowest rung, Level 1 offenders who have not received special designations for being violent, being repeat offenders or having a “mental abnormality or personality disorder” that makes the person “likely to engage in predatory sexually violent offenses,” according to the Division of Criminal Justice Services, are only included on the registry for 20 years from their conviction. The New York State correction law enacting that system has just turned 20 years old, meaning the earliest offenders added to the registry are beginning to drop off.

The Sex Offender Registration Act obligates Level 2 and Level 3 offenders, as well as those with the additional designations, to remain on the registry for life, although there is a provision under which certain Level 2 offenders can appeal to be removed after a period of 30 years.

At a recent civic association meeting in Port Jefferson Station, Laura Ahearn from the advocacy group Parents for Megan’s Law — which raises awareness about sex crime issues and monitors offenders — gave examples of offenders set to come off the registry this year, including a man who raped a 4-year-old girl, and another who raped and sodomized a woman.

But it doesn’t stop there.

“It is thousands over time that are going to drop off,” Ahearn said.

A database search of Level 1 offenders along the North Shore of Suffolk County turned up many offenders who had been convicted of statutory rape or possession of child pornography, and who had served little to no time in jail. However, there were more serious offenses as well.

“You know when an adult man or an adult woman rapes a 4-year-old, that is just shocking. That [should be] a lifetime registration.”
— Laura Ahearn

Some of the undesignated Level 1 offenders who were convicted shortly after the Sex Offender Registration Act was created include a Smithtown man, now 43, convicted of first-degree sexual abuse against a 19-year-old; a 61-year-old Rocky Point man who sexually abused a 12-year-old girl more than once; a Huntington man, now 40, who sexually abused an 11-year-old; and a Rocky Point man convicted of incest with a 17-year-old.

Ahearn’s group has argued that sex offenders are more likely to reoffend as time goes on. According to Parents for Megan’s Law, recidivism rates are estimated to be 14 percent after five years and 27 percent after 20 years.

One midnight in January, Suffolk County police arrested a 48-year-old man, later discovered to be a registered Level 1 sex offender, in Fort Salonga after the suspect was allegedly caught undressed inside a vehicle with a 14-year-old boy. Police reported at the time that the two arranged the meeting over a cellphone application and there had been sexual contact.

The man had been convicted of sexual misconduct with a 16-year-old girl in 2003 and was sentenced to six years of probation. His new charges included criminal sex act and endangering the welfare of a child.

“So it makes no sense logically” to let Level 1 offenders drop off the registry after 20 years, Ahearn said in Port Jefferson Station. She has advocated for the terms to be extended or to have offenders appeal to be removed from the registry, like Level 2 offenders can after 30 years, so it can be decided on a case-by-case basis.

It’s a “you-know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing, because you know when an adult man or an adult woman rapes a 4-year-old, that is just shocking,” she said. “That [should be] a lifetime registration.”

Even if the offenders remain on the registry, the court ruling that struck down restrictions on where most offenders can live has made matters trickier.

Ahearn said the fact that multiple layers of local government had enacted restrictions contributed to the situation.

“What happened is it got out of control,” she said.

County and town laws previously restricted sex offenders from living near schools and playgrounds. File photo
County and town laws previously restricted sex offenders from living near schools and playgrounds. File photo

Below the Suffolk County level, for example, the Town of Brookhaven had its own restrictions that prohibited offenders from living within a quarter mile of schools, playgrounds or parks.

There are bills floating around the state government that would tighten restrictions on where certain sex offenders could live, but the only one that has gained traction is a bill state Sen. Michael Venditto (R-Massapequa) sponsored, along with state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), that would return to local governments the power to regulate where offenders can reside.

“Local laws designed to protect children against registered sex offenders are enacted in response to unique conditions and concerns of specific communities and should act in complement with existing state law,” the bill’s summary read.

Although the bill passed the Senate last year, it died in the Assembly. But Venditto reintroduced his proposal this year.

For more information about sex offender laws or to search for sex offenders in a specific neighborhood, visit the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services at www.criminaljustice.ny.gov or the Parents for Megan’s Law group at www.parentsformeganslaw.org.