Erie County District Attorney Elizabeth Hirz

In an effort to maintain its fight against gender-based violence and its efforts to prevent violence against women and childhood marriage, the Zonta Club of the Corry Area invites guest speakers to the club’s monthly meetings to educate club members and help spread the word about the works Zonta is doing, internationally and locally.

During the club’s October meeting, Erie County District Attorney Elizabeth “Beth” Hirz was the speaker. Hirz was appointed district attorney this past January and is the first female district attorney for the county. She has been employed with the Erie County District Attorney’s Office for the past 20-plus years.

Hirz enlightened club members about the newly created domestic violence unit in the district attorney’s office. Former District Attorney Jack Daneri approached Erie County Council in 2021 to request a new assistant district attorney position for that unit.

Rob Ferguson is now the ADA in charge of all domestic violence cases. “He handles these (domestic violence) types of cases from charging through to trial,” Hirz said.

There is also a new phone app that contains the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) screening questions. Police who are responding to a domestic violence incident ask the victim a series of 11 short screening questions. “The responses to the questions are used to determine the potential lethality of the situation,” Hirz said. “Depending on a victim’s answers, the officer or officers may immediately put a high-risk victim in touch via cell phone with their local domestic violence program so that the victim may begin safety planning.

The officer then sends the screens to SafeNet (in Erie) and to Ferguson for them to assess and follow up, if necessary, within 48 to 72 hours based on the victim’s answers. Victims who are located within Erie County are referred to Safe Journey, which is also part of the nitiative, Hirz said.

SafeNet and Safe Journey are nonprofit organizations that provide free confidential services, including counseling, legal advocacy, education and shelter to victims of domestic violence. Safe Journey also has a program to assist victims of teen dating violence. The Crime Victim Center of Erie County may also be notified. “The follow-up visit should focus on warnings for the subject and safety of the victim,” Hirz said. “The overall goal of the process is to break the cycle of repeat calls and escalating violence.”

Hirz said all agencies involved have been sending in the LAP reports and working hard on this protocol. Hirz said, no doubt, it has been a difficult start, but those working on domestic violence are committed and won’t give up helping the victims.

In addition to domestic violence, the Erie County District Attorney’s Office is working on human trafficking. There are many myths associated with human trafficking. One is that there is only sex trafficking. This is not true; there is also labor trafficking. “Just like domestic violence victims, we find these victims are even more reluctant (to come forward),” Hirz said.

When it comes to kids, in their mind they are getting something (a loose example is new clothes or boots), and they don’t want to give that up. Some of the indicators for children being victims of human trafficking involve: does not speak for himself or herself; exhibits behaviors of fear, anxiety and depression; and lacks awareness of city and state where they are located.

For adults, they could be asked if they are permitted to leave their situation/job if they want, if they have their ID or does someone else have it; if they control the money they earn or does someone else, and has anyone harmed or threatened to harm them to get them to do something.

The Erie County District Attorney’s Office is part of the Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition Force Erie. The program is run by Deborah Davies, professor of Intelligence Studies at Mercyhurst University. Davies has worked for the United States government to identify signs of human trafficking and kidnapping.

Carol Finotti formerly was with the Crime Victim Center of Erie. About 10 years ago, she worked with the Sisters of St. Joseph to create a human trafficking coalition. They did a lot with education about human trafficking, working with several law enforcement agencies and legislators. Finotti is now employed by the Erie County Office of Children and Youth and works with Davies on the Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition Force Erie.  The coalition is helping to educate community organizations about human trafficking. “The coalition is working to continue to bring awareness to the Erie community and influence change in organizations encountering human trafficking victims so they are able to recognize and respond to their needs,” Finotti said.

Cooper said the Zonta Club of the Corry Area has pledged to “say no” to violence against women and fully supports the efforts of the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.

Maryann Mook

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