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Spanish-speaking victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are special-need cases

By Federico Martínez, La Prensa Contributor  

The call arrived late afternoon: A 15-year-old Latina in Toledo had been brutally, sexually assaulted. She was suffering from severe trauma and to make the situation more challenging, she didn’t speak English.

Jessica Torres-García, whose job as an outreach coordinator for the YWCA of Northwest Ohio’s H.O.P.E. Center is to try and help sexual assault victims in the Latino community, rushed out of her office to meet the victim and her mother at a local hospital.

Claudia Annoni

“When I get to the hospital I’ll talk to the victim and her mother to find out what happened,” said Mrs. Torres-García, who notes Lucas County, lacks trained bilingual health care providers and law enforcement officials. “I will serve as a translator for the police and hospital staff.”

Mrs. Torres-García will also make sure the victim and her mother are aware of their legal rights, what community resources are available to them and if they desire, she’ll accompany them to follow up doctor visits and help them fill out police reports. There is also a women’s shelter at the YWCA.

According to national figures only 40 percent of all rapes are reported to law enforcement. Incidents of rape are even less likely to be reported in the Latino community. Lucas County does not record the number of Hispanic women who are sexually assaulted. Those statistics only include categories for white and black people.

According to The State of Hispanic Girls, National Coalition of Latino Health and Human Service Organizations, one in three Latina women ages 18 to 50 responded that they have been victims of sexual abuse, more than one third experienced re-victimization and more than 80 percent of initial incidents occurred from the age of seven.

Sexual assaults involving Latinos in Lucas County and other counties in Ohio and Michigan are also believed to be under-reported.

 “There’s still such a stigma to sexual assault in the Latino community,” said Mrs. Torres-García. “Religion plays a role in it – the Catholic Church puts an emphasis on being pure so if a woman gets raped they are often too embarrassed or ashamed to tell anybody.

“Victims tend to turn to family members,” said Mrs. Torres-García, but most rapes are conducted by family members and relatives, so there is often pressure by the family to keep quiet.

Claudia Annoni and El Centro de la Mujer

Immigrant Latinas are even more reluctant to come forward because they fear deportation, she added.

All victims of domestic violence in the United States, regardless of immigration or citizenship status are guaranteed basic protections under civil and criminal law, said Claudia Annoni, the founder of Toledo-based El Centro de la Mujer, a support group for Spanish-speaking women who are victims of domestic violence. The challenge is getting that information to women who don’t speak or read English.

A victim’s basic rights include the right to obtain a protection order, the right to legal separation or divorce without the consent of the spouse, the right to share certain marital property and the right to ask for custody and financial support for children.

Victims who don’t have legal status in the United States have options that could prevent them from being deported; but it is not a pathway to citizenship. A victim can petition for legal status under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), seek cancelation of removal under VAWA and file for a U-non-immigrant status, said Ms. Annoni.

There are even greater challenges that must be addressed in the Latino community, she said.

“The culture is such a big piece of the picture,” said Ms. Annoni. “Traditional Latina women do not see domestic violence as violence; they see it as a lifestyle.

“I hate to say this, but a lot of the blame belongs to the Catholic Church which continues to reinforce these false beliefs that women are inferior and must be submissive to men. So, what you have are women out there thinking, “Well, it’s my husband, he has the right to have sex with me.”

These women have to be deprogrammed into understanding that nobody has the right to force them to have sex – that’s rape – not “having sex,” said Ms. Annoni.

El Centro de la Mujer, which went on hiatus earlier this year due to lack of funding, tries to help women feel more confident, improve their self-esteem and educate them about domestic violence and sexual assault.

The lack of funds to operate the program is frustrating, said Ms. Annoni because there’s such a great need in the Toledo area for it.  It wasn’t uncommon to have 20-30 women attend weekly support sessions.

Ms. Annoni says a big part of the problem is that many Latinos still refuse to acknowledge the problem of domestic violence and sexual assault in their own community. The non-Latino community is even less supportive because they don’t view it as “their problem.”

“When you think about proposals and grants it’s very hard to do any of that when Toledo’s victim’s unit doesn’t keep track of Latino victims.”

Current existing resources are geared toward Caucasian women, lack bilingual staff and don’t understand how culture plays a very significant role when working with Latino victims, said Ms. Annoni.

“If people don’t understand the culture and domestic violence they can really mess up the victim,” said Ms. Annoni. “I worked with a woman once who had three children and someone decided to report the abusive husband to social services and the police. The husband was deported, but that’s not what the victim wanted and it’s her life.”

The well-meaning person who reported the abuse may have thought they were helping, but their actions caused an incredible amount of trauma and grief for the victim and her children who still had no say in what was happening in their lives.

Deisy Madrigal, Hispanic Center of Western Michigan

“Our program’s goal is to give the victim her voice back; to feel empowered so that they can start thinking for themselves,” said Deisy Madrigal, director of Family Support Services for Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Hispanic Center of Western Michigan. “In the U.S. we’re taught a certain way, but when you’re dealing with other people you need to understand the additional barriers they face.”

In addition to offering a support group, the Hispanic Center helps victims file any paperwork, including; police reports and personal protection orders. Counseling services are also made available for the victim and their children, and even the abuser if the abuser is willing.

“We try to help people live violence free lives; we don’t tell them you have to leave your partner,” said Mrs. Madrigal. The Hispanic Center has been operating a program for domestic violence and sexual assault victims since 1999. 

El Centro de la Mujer also offers a support group that provides activities to help empower women so that they can make better decisions.

One of the first things I do is sit down with the women and help them create a “safety plan,” said Ms. Annoni. The plan asks the victim to identify patterns, such as when does the abuse usually occur, and who can they call for help, and develop a code that will tip off a friend that they are in danger. Victims should also have important paperwork, such as a green card stored away in a safe place.

Other important tips victims should always remember: Avoid the bathroom if you’re being abused because it’s a very enclosed area and the “most dangerous room you can be in,” said Ms. Annoni. Another dangerous area is the kitchen because the abuser can grab a knife, glass or many other objects.

Annoni also encourages Spanish-speaking women to learn enough English so that they can call 9-1-1 and give their name and address to the dispatcher.

Ms. Annoni is hopeful that Mrs. Torres-García’s efforts will fill the void left when El Centro de la Mujer went on hiatus. Ms. Annoni is now employed by an agency that helps the homeless and mentally ill, but she’s optimistic that El Centro will be revived.

 Since being hired in June, Mrs. Torres-García has spent much of her time introducing herself to the community be making presentations to various organizations and agencies. The strategy has been effective; for example Toledo’s Adelante, Inc. contacted Mrs. Torres-García about the 15-year-old who was assaulted this past week.

In January, the H.O.P.E. Center will begin providing Spanish-language education classes and programs for women who have been sexually assaulted. Mrs. Torres-García will begin by offering programs in East Toledo and the Old South End of the city.  For more information about those meetings contact Mrs. Torres-Garcia at (419) 241-3235 extension 194. H.O.P.E. also offers a 24-hour help line – (419)241-7273.

In addition to offering weekly support meetings, class topics will cover understanding rights, how to talk to children about circumstances, understanding what sexual assault and domestic violence is, and what resources are available. The programs and services are free.

Part of her job is to answer any questions and tackle myths; for example some women believe that sexual assault is a punishment by God, Mrs. Torres-García said.

“We’re offering the program in Spanish because there are already programs in English,” said Mrs. Torres-Garcia. “But what about those women who don’t speak English; there’s nothing out there for them. These programs are needed to help them.”

Other agencies that specialize in helping Spanish-speaking victims of domestic violence and sexual assault include:

·         Domestic Violence and Children Advocacy Center, Cleveland, Ohio, which offers a 24-hour hotline – 216-391-HELP and long-term shelter.

·         Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, (616) 742-0223.

·         Center for Women in Transition, Holland, Michigan, 1-866-728-2131.

Copyright © 1989 to 2014 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 11/18/14 19:31:14 -0800.




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