Azsia Johnson had always longed to be a mother. “She was a wonderful mother, she loved her children,” Lisa DeSort told Upper East Site this week, laughing at the happy memories of her 20-year-old daughter who was fatally shot late last month on a quiet, tree-lined Upper East Side street in what police are investigating as an act of domestic violence.
Johnson had been pushing her 3-month-old daughter Chloe in her stroller on East 95th Street on the evening of June 29 when police say her ex-boyfriend Isaac Argro, 22, who DeSort said had been abusing Azsia, shot her once in the back of the head at close range, leaving Chloe alone at the scene as he fled.
The killing, DeSort said, has transformed her, pushing her to become an advocate for victims of domestic violence, a problem that has surged in New York City since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This is my purpose now,” she said.
And in her new role, DeSort is pressing for legislators and the police to do more to protect people in abusive relationships, and stressing that authorities need to do a better job educating victims about their rights.
New York City Council Member Julie Menin, who represents District 5 on the Upper East Side, said in a statement that the council has allocated $11.5 million in its recently passed budget to the DoVe Initiative, a domestic violence prevention program, in order to “support women at risk through crisis intervention, counseling, legal and other referrals, and so much more.”
Menin also cited the Community Safety and Victim Series Initiative, which gives each council member $100,000 to “distribute to providers of essential community safety programs and victim services.”
The council member stated she would be using the funds to “support organizations in our community that are doing this truly life changing and lifesaving work.”
Anthony Washington, an outreach worker at Harlem-based domestic violence prevention nonprofit We All Really Matter— or W.A.R.M. for short— told Upper East Site that the state of intimate partner abuse “is horrific.”
Washington says “we are beyond where we should be” in terms of the number of incidents. “It’s taking on a different life.”
For her part, DeSort — after attending a vigil in her daughter’s honor, navigating the media frenzy that followed a very rare fatal shooting on the Upper East Side, and sitting in the gallery last week for Argro’s arrangement on charges of second-degree murder and second-degree weapons possession — is angry.
Her daughter, she said, was not treated properly by police.
After Johnson was first allegedly assaulted on January 1st of this year, DeSort called 911, but says responding officers did not arrest Argro, telling Johnson his verbal threats of violence didn’t amount to harassment. DeSort said of this police response, “Domestic violence is not taken as seriously as it should be.”
She believes officers should have arrested Argro on the spot, since Johnson had made a credible complaint of domestic abuse, telling Upper East Site that this should become standard police practice.
DeSort said that stricter laws and police procedures for domestic violence need to be implemented, and that such measures might have saved her daughter’s life.
She also told Upper East Site that she wants automatic orders of protection to be issued to all victims of intimate partner violence, and specifies that these victims aren’t just women.
A survivor of domestic abuse herself, and a former New York City EMT, DeSort has seen the effects of domestic violence first hand. Recounting her daughter’s struggles, DeSort said that on New Year’s Day, her daughter had called “hysterical” saying Argro had hit her. This was the first time he had been violent, DeSort said.
According to DeSort, when officers responded, they told Johnson that her then-boyfriend had prior arrests, which she knew nothing about. DeSort said her daughter thought he was “a good person because he portrayed [himself] to be that. We didn’t even know his background until she got assaulted.”
After the initial incident, DeSort recalled her daughter saying “she felt that ‘she wasn’t protected.’” DeSort also thought her daughter wasn’t properly educated about the custody regulations in place for battered women.
At the time of the first alleged assault, Johnson was pregnant, and by the time she gave birth to Chloe, she had already fled the relationship. DeSort mentioned how she had talked to the hospital’s security staff to make sure Argro couldn’t get in to visit Johnson, “because he was stalking her.”
Johnson was told by an officer handling her case that “he [Argro] has every right to be [in the hospital] because she’s about to have a baby,” DeSort said.
Because of Argro’s alleged violence and harassment, DeSort said, Johnson had to move into a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. According to police, it was located in East Harlem. Her mother said even this shelter didn’t give Johnson the assistance she needed in finding a place to live.
DeSort says her daughter was told by the shelter, “‘We’re not here to help you find housing.’” She said shelters “are only there to keep you safe.”
DeSort would like to see an expansion of the services that such shelters provide. Shelters “need more assistance, and faster assistance,” she urged. DeSort thought her daughter should have been given help with changing her phone number, which she thought she couldn’t do because it was tied to a credit card.
“If she had changed her phone number, [Argro] wouldn’t have been able to get to her, to coerce her, and lure her with things for the baby,” DeSort said.
Shortly after Chloe’s birth, Johnson says she was told by officers that Argro “‘has every right to see his child,’” DeSort said. Her mother disputes this point of law, but said that her daughter wasn’t fully aware of her rights.
DeSort wants all victims of domestic violence to be counseled by the police on what they can and cannot do regarding protecting children from an abuser.
Looking back over the days since her daughter’s death, DeSort sees a glimmer of hope. Johnson’s two children are currently in her care, so “they will have a family.” And DeSort is determined to keep fighting for other victims — and mothers — like her daughter.
“I can’t let another person die in the light of domestic violence and let another lover or family or siblings go through this without a person in their life that knows what it feels like.”
“I want my daughter’s life to be celebrated,” DeSort said, “and to carry on being the name of domestic violence. She’s speaking through me.”