Fighting domestic violence with compassion

It’s not unusual for Ted Piers to get a call for help in the middle of the night.

With his stocky build and shaved head, the 5-foot 10-inch detective may seem more Telly Savalas than Alan Alda, but Piers is known for his sensitivity, compassion, and understanding. His expertise: domestic violence.

A member of the Framingham Police Department, Piers is the recent recipient of the Barbara Gray Humanitarian Award presented by Voices Against Violence, a Framingham-based organization that provides information, counseling, and support to victims of sexual assault or domestic violence.

Piers, who will turn 50 in March, lives in Ashland and has been with the Framingham force since 1989. He grew up in Natick and after graduating from high school, he spent 10 years working in a machine shop by day and as a patrol officer at night, first in Sherborn and then in Natick. Now a seasoned detective, he also attends Western New England College part time, majoring in criminal justice.

”We work on about 400 cases a year,” said Piers, who was asked to be part of the domestic violence unit in 1998. His job begins after patrol officers respond to a 911 call and file a report. Piers then tracks down victims to offer help.

”We’ve been able to help people understand that even though it’s difficult to assist in the prosecution of a family member, it can be the best thing for them,” he said.

Piers demystifies the legal process for victims, easing, for example, fears of mothers that they could lose their children. He has learned not just to listen, but how to ask questions.

”I remember asking a woman during an investigation if she’d ever been hit by her abuser. She said ‘no.’ Yet later in the conversation, she spoke about being thrown down the stairs.” Piers said the woman didn’t consider being thrown down stairs as domestic violence.

Mary Gianakis, director of Voices Against Violence, spent the first 18 years of her career in law enforcement. ”You don’t have to compromise an investigation to be sensitive to a survivor, and you don’t have to compromise victim sensitivity in order to do a thorough investigation. Ted does both, which is a real skill.”

Gianakis remembers an especially tricky situation nine months ago, where Piers’ expertise played a crucial role. Voices Against Violence had taken in a family and the next day began receiving phone calls from out-of-state police officials in search of a woman who had kidnapped her children from foster care.

”By this time, it was way past midnight,” said Gianakis. ”We called Ted, and without hesitation he came from his home to work with our staff, found a way to make contact with the mom, and helped her understand what was best for her and the children.”

Piers said that as much as he tries to keep his own beliefs and feelings out of his work, ”it’s kind of hard to just flip a switch and forget about some of these victims. . . . [Batterers] have to understand that domestic violence is a crime.”

For more information on Voices Against Violence, visit http://smoc.org/ or call the 24-hour hot line at 800-593-1125 or 508-626-8686. Additional resources for help include: Jane Doe Inc. at 617-248-0922 and SafeLink at 877-785-2020.

SHIPPING AMERICANA: Helaine Hartman Cohen gets paid for shipping everything from condoms to car fenders throughout the world. The 53-year-old Sudbury resident and certified public accountant has been satisfying expatriates with her company, Shop America, since 1993.

Cohen, who got the idea from her brother, began the business by placing advertisements in international newspapers and magazines targeted to Americans living abroad. (Her business can be found at http://mysite.verizon.net/shopamer.) The first ad read: ”Are you homesick for Oreo cookies?” The first order came from Germany for a pair of blue jeans.

”In the beginning, there were a lot of people who wanted food. I’d send cereal, cookies, chips, and all sorts of things that were creature comforts,” said Cohen, who has clients as far-flung as South Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East. ”Americans living in Japan seem to have a difficult time finding clothing” big enough to fit them.

A native New Yorker, Cohen has an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from Boston University. The mother of four speaks Chinese, Russian, and French. Her primary job is as an accountant for Langbort & Buettner in Framingham.

Cohen said that while the Internet and broader exports of American products have made inroads into her business, she retains a niche supplying personalized service.

”I got a fax last night from a man in Thailand who has an old Volkswagen Beetle that he’s been keeping alive; he sends me the details and I go out find [parts] for him.”

Among the more interesting things she’s sent abroad: contraceptive jelly to Japan, lice care kits to Thailand, and a Sony laptop computer to Japan (the client wanted to use American commands).

Cohen charges 12 percent of the cost of the product. If she ships the goods herself, she tacks on $16 per box.

Cohen’s most unusual request came from an ex-New Englander living in Düsseldorf, Germany, who was determined to get a 15-pound Butterball turkey for Christmas. The problem was that the deadline had passed to send such a special shipment via a company like FedEx. Cohen got lucky: As she was picking her son up from school, she overheard a mother say she was heading home to Germany for Christmas.

”I agreed to take the turkey,” said Reingard Nathanson, Cohen’s fellow Sudbury resident. They packed the bird with dry ice, put it in a cooler, then into another box.

After landing, Nathanson found her suitcases, but no turkey. She watched as all the other passengers picked up their luggage and left, leaving her alone with two less-than-patient children. Then the Lufthansa crew emerged from the plane, the captain carrying the turkey.

That night Cohen received a fax from her customer: ”The eagle has landed. Mother and children fine. Turkey still frozen.”

AROUND THE TOWNS: The Marlborough-Hudson Homeless Shelter’s 16th annual Evening of Giving drew 1,300 supporters and was expected to exceed last year’s $33,000 in proceeds, according to Marlborough resident Joan Simoneau, whose late husband, Roland, started the shelter in 1986. The shelter was officially renamed Roland’s House that evening, in his honor. . . . Teddy Portney, a senior at Newton North High School, brought in $1,700 for Red Cross hurricane relief efforts by organizing Rock for Katrina, a five-band concert at the Trinity Episcopal Parish in Newton Centre. . . . Hudson resident Mike Walling, 57, was awarded the Samuel Eliot Morrison Award for Naval Literature last month in New York City for his book, ”Bloodstained Sea: The US Coast Guard in the Battle of the Atlantic, 1945-1945.” The book, published by McGraw-Hill, is his first.

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