“Hit by a fist or something hard, beaten, or slammed against something” was the language used to describe what nearly a quarter of American women experienced by the hand of an “intimate partner” last year.
That’s according to a new government report, released Dec. 14, based on a random sample of 9,000 female respondents. The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also found that nearly one in five women had experienced rape or attempted rape.
In New York City, a network of organizations works to assist women in these troubling situations. One of them, the Violence Intervention Program (VIP), is based in East Harlem – and its employees understand that domestic violence is a problem afflicting all levels of society.
“I’ll tell you a story,” says Cecilia Gaston, the VIP’s executive director. “A 20-year marriage to a multinational businessman, college degree, very sophisticated, domestic violence – that’s me. I’m a survivor myself, although I’ve never been poor, I’m privileged, I speak five languages, I’m a U.S. citizen. Domestic violence happens across the board.”
Gaston is sitting in a small kitchen at VIP headquarters in El Barrio, where the organization was founded in 1984. The building is deliberately inconspicuous, and its address is kept secret so “clients can stay safe” when they visit for counseling or information sessions.
One of several small rooms is decorated colorfully and scattered with toys. Supporting children whose parents are in abusive relationships is an important part of the VIP mission: “I work with them to try and express feelings, to verbalize the trauma,” explains youth counselor Lidia Flores. “We recently started mixed groups with mothers and children, which is very helpful. Sometimes the mother cannot see from the child’s view, or they have trouble expressing feelings at home and being able to spend time together. The mother might be dealing with many different things and feeling guilty she can’t provide.”
For the most needy victims, VIP offers a way out. Secret accommodation facilities in Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens provide emergency shelter for up to 135 days, or a transitional apartment for as long as two years. “When a woman chooses shelter, it’s usually a last resort,” says Gaston. “You have to give up your job, and you cannot not tell anyone where you are – not even your family.” This is to ensure that abusive partners have no way of tracking women down.
At a time when the demand for support services is rising, the fact that so much of the organization’s work is hidden means that reaching out is a very delicate task. Word of mouth is key. “A lot of people don’t know about us – especially recent immigrants who live in their enclave with friends and family,” says Valerie Leon, the community education and outreach coordinator. Gaston adds, “They come from countries where these services do not exist, so they don’t in any way assume that help is available.”
On a wider cultural level, Leon says her promotional efforts often hit a wall of social taboos about domestic violence in Latino communities. “There’s a lot of victim-blaming: People think she must like it, she deserved it, that kind of thing,” she explains. “A lot of folks make light of it like a joke – saying men get abused, and all that. Our presence might not change someone’s relationship, but at least we’re raising awareness, which is the first part of prevention.”
VIP representatives regularly visit local hotspots where women gather, such as Head Start Centers, to deliver presentations. “One of the best tools we have is other survivors,” says Leon, who is assisted by four “promotoras,” or promoters, who themselves came through the organization’s rehabilitation program. Gaston adds: “In Latin America, the community health educator is a model that works very well. It’s not me coming with my college degree and my suit to tell somebody what to do – it’s a neighbor, and they’re very successful.”
Guadalupe Perez is one of the volunteer “promotoras.” She endured an abusive relationship for 12 years before VIP helped her get out by providing therapy, legal support and shelter. Today, the memories live on: “For a long time I carried a lot of pain and anger,” Perez recalls.
“When I started talking to my therapist, I fell down. I felt without energy, and someone had to help me go outside because I wasn’t able to walk. I remember they gave me cold water, they put me on a couch to rest, because I felt terrible. I compare myself in the past to a zombie.”
Perez says her children implored her to end the relationship, and she now takes pride in using her personal experience to help others. “If I touch a lady with my history, I know this lady will change her life if she takes therapy and decides to leave an abusive relationship and start a new life,” she says. “It could save a family – the lady and her children too. And the children will not repeat the same cycle in the future.”
The “promotoras” distribute pamphlets and specially designed nail files that advertise the VIP’s 24/7 hotline, which receives some 14,000 calls every year. “It’s something a woman can keep in her purse that doesn’t raise a lot of attention – a card or brochure is obvious, you see,” says Gaston.
The phone number acts as a vital point of first contact: Around 1,000 women per year are then provided with further services. VIP is staffed by 38 full-time employees, assisted by part-timers and volunteers. The organization supplements federal funding with grants from the New York Women’s Foundation and other partners, and recently made $31,000 with a private fundraising event.
Gaston has worked with authorities at state and national level on the issue of domestic violence, which she says is linked closely to immigration and deportation. She says the federal Secure Communities program, first piloted by the Bush administration in 2008, is a “deadly” threat to Hispanics in New York. Under the policy, police officers submit fingerprints of all arrestees to a national database that is shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). If a violation is suspected, ICE can issue its own detention orders that lead to federal custody – and potential deportation.
“Police are acting as immigration officers,” says Gaston. “That means no one is going to call the police if it brings them into a community where there are people at risk of being picked up by immigration.” In domestic violence cases, she says this could lead to a fear of reporting perpetrators for the sake of avoiding any contact with the law.
“It’s a major undermining of community policing and the relationship between the community and the people supposed to be protecting them,” Gaston continues. She’s met with NYPD officials to discuss the issue: “We concluded that officers require an enormous amount of training,” she says. “In theory there are policies and protocols, but they’re not being followed – like something as simple as conducting a proper investigation at the site where the incident occurs and arresting the right person.”
On the other hand, domestic violence advocates have had their own policy “czar” at the White House since June 2009, when Lynn Rosenthal was appointed as special adviser on violence against women. And vice president Joe Biden was one of the original proponents of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which Gaston cites as “a critical piece of legislation” because it provides a legal framework and a funding stream for non-governmental organizations. An updated version of VAWA was tabled for a third congressional reauthorization in November this year.