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Violencia Domestica | Domestic Violence

11/01/2014 by Rebekah Zemansky
  • Maria Felix and Viri during an intake session. (Photo by Rebekah Zemansky)
Scared and embarrassed, Magda called her cousin in tears and asked for help. For the two years since she had married her husband and moved with her son from Puerto Penasco, Mexico, to Phoenix, AZ, her husband had constantly criticized her and prevented her from working, going to the doctor or even communicating freely with friends, family and neighbors. He hadn’t hit her – yet – but a few times she’d been scared enough to flee the house. Magda’s cousin gave her the phone number for a social worker, Patricia, who advised Magda to come to the shelter where she worked – and to have the police with her when she packed her bags.

Magda had called the cops once before. The first time had ended badly.

“They came two hours later, I was in the park and almost went to the house, cause the police didn’t come,” Magda remembered. “They didn’t help me, they didn’t pay attention to me. I went to my house and forgot everything.”

She waited nearly as long this time, but a different set of officers showed up and treated her differently.

“When they came, I was calmed down. I was waiting two hours in the park,” Magda recalled. “In that time I prayed, and calmed down, and I realize that in that process, I felt guilty.”

Officers stood guard, as Magda packed clothes, documents and a few necessities and made arrangements to spend one night at her cousin’s house before checking into De Colores, a domestic violence shelter. It wasn’t a decision she was sure of.

“I thought that this place was a bad place,” Magda said. “But when we came, everything was different.”

The place and the purpose – De Colores

Approaching from the street, De Colores doesn’t stand out from the surrounding houses in this rough neighborhood, except that some may wonder if the multiple fences are a sign of an especially large dog or especially paranoid homeowner.

The only visible building is actually a pair of modest single story houses that gradually grew together into what appears to be a rather spacious ranch house residence.

It’s only when you come through the driveway’s formidable gate that you see what lies beyond: a a hidden village that’s complete with apartments, a dining hall, two small playgrounds, a library and a small basketball court donated by Nike.

It’s temporary and transitional housing for 100 women and children.

Georgina arrived at the shelter in July after her boyfriend threatened to kill her at gunpoint.

Ana and her children are at De Colores for the second time after her violent ex-boyfriend tracked them down to their new apartment.

Kelyn needed a safe place after she fled a brutal husband in Guatemala only to experience abuse again from a relative in Mesa.

After her boyfriend beat her so badly she spent eight days in the hospital, Lisa came here seeking a place more stable for her children than couch surfing with relatives.

De Colores is run by the nonprofit Chicanos Por la Causa, a nonprofit founded in the 1960s to addressa range of problems in the barrios of South Central Phoenix.

Director of Operations Julie Rosen, (M.S., L.P.C), sees the shelter’s main purpose as helping women break the silence and the cycle of violence both in their own lives and in that of their children, who may accompany their mothers to the shelter if they are under 18.

“Children who are raised in violence tend to be abusers themselves,” Rosen observed. “So we really want get in there and make sure that folks understand that they can break the cycle that they don’t have to continue.”

From social workers to maintenance workers, shelter staff focuses on doing this by helping the women find safety, then build self-sufficiency, especially through linking them to jobs and housing, while dealing with the legal and emotional fallout of domestic violence.

For most women, the challenges of addressing domestic abuse are frequently compounded by legal, economic, and cultural factors. Along with crisis housing, social workers here may connect clients to services that help with everything from orders of protection, divorce and custody arrangements to health care and job training. Yet those services are difficult to access for women in immediate danger, who are unaware of their existence, or those who face language or legal status barriers.

According to the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, there were at least 125 domestic violence related fatalities in Arizona in 2013, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline received nearly 4000 calls from the state. Forty-three percent of those calls were from the Phoenix Metro area, where 33 percent of the population is Hispanic according to a 2011 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. One third of Hispanics living in Phoenix were born outside the U.S. Of the 15 area domestic violence shelters today, De Colores claims to be the only one to exclusively offer bilingual and bicultural environment.

Sometimes cultural norms make recognizing domestic violence difficult, explained office manager Daniella Chao.

“It’s our culture to obey our spouse, so whatever they say, it’s okay,” Chao said. “So we [Hispanics] tend to fall into being a victim of domestic violence without even knowing it.”

Based on the number of people the shelter regularly has to turn away, Chao said De Colores could double its 100-bed capacity and still be full because of the high demand for domestic violence services in Spanish.

Being able to communicate in Spanish is essential. “You need to be able to know that your counselor is going to understand what you are saying completely,” Chao insisted, “because if we do not understand the victim, we are not going to be able to help her very successfully in her legal terms.”

Those legal needs can be especially complicated for women who are undocumented.

“A lot of our victims are always afraid, due to their legal status, that their kids are gonna be taken away from them,” Chao noted. “So that’s where the legal advocate comes in and gives them the comfort, lets them know that everything’s gonna be ok.

De Colores staff say they do not keep track of how many women who come through the shelter’s doors are undocumented, but clearly many are immigrants –– some who’ve arrived legally and some who have not. Not surprisingly, few clients are aware of VAWA, the Violence Against Women Act, which allows women whose abusive partners are legal residents or U.S. citizens to apply for a visa to avoid deportation.

Drafted in 1990 by then-Senator Joseph Biden, and passed into federal law in 1994, VAWA was designed – as Biden noted at a recent 20th anniversary event – to take on “scores of states that had written into their laws the basic presumption that if a woman was raped or beaten or abused by her husband or someone she knew, she must have done something wrong.”

A deeply contested battle followed in 2013 to add protections for LGBT victims of partner violence, expand the jurisdiction of Indian tribal authorities, and offer options for undocumented women. Clients at De Colores most frequently apply for residency (for women who were married to abusers legally present in the U.S.) and U-Visas which allow women who cooperate with law enforcement and prosecutors to stay, regardless of the legal status of those involved.

But at De Colores, the first priority isn’t the law – it’s safety.

Since much of the shelter’s security depends on keeping the location a secret, De Colores does not take walk-ins who may have been followed by abusers who bring the violence to the shelter’s front door. In these cases, staff help victims reach a shelter where their abuser can’t find them.

Clients may be referred by police, by social workers through the national domestic violence hotline or may call in themselves.

First point of contact

“It would be easier almost to stay, than it is to force yourself to do something different,” Julie Rosen concludes. “We want to make sure that we handle those calls with as much kindness as we possibly can and we answer the phone 24/7. Regardless of who calls there’s a live person answering the phone all the time,” Rosen emphasized. “So that person is trained to make sure that they’re kind, compassionate, very considerate of the person on the other end, because is not easy to call for help – it’s hard.”

Over the phone, a caller’s needs are assessed by staff, like intake specialist and volunteer coordinator Evelin Flores.

Sometimes, during the height of summer, De Colores fields calls from homeless women seeking refuge from the scorching southwestern heat. “I ask them what kind of help they need, before telling them that it’s a domestic violence shelter,” Flores said. “Because if I tell them it’s a domestic violence shelter, they’ll change their story into a domestic violence situation.”

Flores also checks the shelter’s availability, asks if there are kids who need to come too and reviews the shelter rules: the stay is thirty days for single women, and three months for families. Residents are expected to do chores. For crisis housing, the rooms are shared – often with children, since many of the women have two or more staying with them. After the initial three months, they can transition to a longer program and live in the residential apartments inside the compound.

“I read what kind of abuse it was, and if they have any support system, and I go off of that and kinda try to talk to them about it,” Flores reported. “There is a page … in the file, like a sketch of a body, so for the physical abuse. Most of them, when they first get here they don’t wanna talk about it so I give them the option to talk to their counselor.”

During the first few days, women start to meet the other residents and are also assigned a three person team to work with: a case manager, a legal advocate, and a counselor/clinician.

It was a process that made Magda self-conscious at first, but once again her intake guide was reassuring.

“When we were walking through this place everyone was watching me but she told me not to worry,” Magda said. “And I found a very good friend who was talkative.”

A supportive group formed around her – one she still meets with regularly today.

Entering the shelter – Viri

Within hours of her arrival, Viri found a similarly warm welcome at a shaded picnic table next to the playground. As she waited for an appointment with case manager Maria Felix, Viri’s gloved hands worked dye through Deb’s hair and Kelyn practiced English phrases while their kids played on the slides nearby.

When Viri was two years old, she was brought from the Sonoran border town of San Luis to Chandler, Arizona, where her parents and siblings had relocated. She’s lived in the United States ever since – when it comes to Mexico, “I was born there but I don’t know nothing about down there.”

But the family reunification didn’t last.

Viri’s father left her mom and their nine kids to fend for themselves. Over the years, Viri’s father and two of her brothers got deported while Viri watched her mother struggle to support the rest of the family through housework, crafts and cooking food to sell: cheese cakes, tamales and “bomb ass tortillas.”

Viri learned English at school but struggled and considered herself a slow learner. “I thought that ….being undocumented, I thought that it was worthless,” Viri said. By 13, she’d flunked grades repeatedly – and she’d met a boy. He was 19 and, after six months, they were living together.

“I saw a chance of the fast life, getting better,” she recalled. “I moved in with him and since, then my life has been next to his life.” At 14 Viri was pregnant; at 16 she was married with a second child. She then had two more children with him.

“It changed a lot and he was really aggressive,” Viri said. “He is a really good father for my kids but not to me.”

Viri’s husband was a legal resident. She says he always read up on immigration issues, but reneged on his promise to help her with her legal status by acting as her sponsor.

“I never left him for the reason I didn’t have a legal status,” Viri said. “Leaving him, where was I going to go?”

And all too often abusive men control their victims by using their immigration status as a threat, says case manager Mayra Beltran.

Beltran says women tell her, “Well I’m married to a U.S. citizen, but he never wants to fix my papers, because he was afraid [I would] leave with the children…Or I didn’t left him because he was abusing me, but I’m always afraid that he was gonna take the kids away from me, because I don’t have a way to support them, because I’m not legal here, because I don’t speak English so they will call immigration on me.”

Viri’s husband didn’t report her, but drugs and alcohol made him mean and dangerous. Sometime she dialed 911 but hung up before the call went through.

“When he’s sober he’s really nice, he jokes a lot, he’s really playful,” Viri said. “But when he’s in the influence he’s a really different person, he’s really aggravated, aggressive.”

Each time he got arrested, Viri had fewer options. With four kids to take care of and no way to work legally, she found herself dependent on his family until he was released from prison. But, living with his parents was another kind of prison. “It was the same thing at his mom’s,” she recounted, “They would put me down, make me less, make my kids less.”

In February 2014 Viri’s husband got arrested again – and she decided she was finally done with being vulnerable to his abuse and his absences.

An organization that gave out food and clothing boxes connected her to a domestic violence shelter where staff helped Viri get a Mexican passport and sign her kids, all U.S. citizens, up for benefits. Then they gave Viri the phone number for De Colores. At De Colores, Viri was told, she could get guidance about applying for residency through a clause of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

Legal advocate Kathy Gomez-Lee says many of the women who arrive at De Colores are reluctant to press charges against their abuser.

“Obviously they are afraid and they’re not thinking long term,” Gomez-Lee said. “I have clients that’’ll start crying and saying, ‘but I’m not thinking 20 years from now, I’m thinking right now.’”

But when they go to court, all parts of their lives are up for review. One of the toughest parts of her Gomez-Lee’ job is explaining to domestic abuse survivors that courts and judges won’t automatically side with them on custody issues, even if they can prove they left an abusive relationship.

“Believe it or not, it’s not enough,” Gomez-Lee said. “They’re looking out for the kids, for the well-being of the kids – yes, you left the abusive relationship, that’s great, but they need food, they need school, they need a house.”

If there’s no evidence that violence has been directed towards the children, a judge may decide that the abusive partner’s house is still safer for them than living with a homeless mom.

For Viri, VAWA represents hope for a new life in the U.S.

“I feel like my life hasn’t started ’cause I have always depended on everybody,” she said.

Soon, she’ll be finalizing her divorce and navigating custody with her husband, who is currently in jail on unrelated charges. While they have too much bad history to make a relationship work, Viri’s cautiously optimistic about how he’s responded to the substance abuse counseling he’s been getting behind bars.

“He sounds supportive through the phone. Hopefully he comes out the same way,” Viri said.

By allowing her to work legally, a successful VAWA application makes a huge difference in Viri’s ability to turn her life around. Getting a job will enable her to save up enough for a housing deposit before she leaves the shelter. She also wants to complete her GED.

“Oh, I’m ready, I’m ready to take any challenge,” Viri asserted. “I’m not going back to that life no more…I don’t do it for me, I do it because I have four little ones,” Viri emphasized. “I want them to look up to me and say, ‘wow.'”

Emergence and after – Brenda

When Brenda was five years old, she moved with her mother and older brother from Sinaloa, Mexico to the U.S., ultimately settling in Tucson, Arizona.

Brenda met her husband through MySpace. At first the relationship was mostly long distance but when Brenda found out she was pregnant, they moved in together.

The problems started almost immediately. He pinched her and called her names. He kept spending time with other girls and Brenda caught him lying over and over again.

“I would try to leave,” Brenda said “and I wouldn’t leave because I thought about my baby and I thought about my family’s gonna be like, ‘this is your fault.'”

The violence escalated from yelling to beating and choking.

One night, shortly after the couple had moved out of his parents house, he was drinking heavily and texting another woman at 3 o’clock in the morning. Brenda begged him to stop keeping secrets.

“He started punching me and he started hitting me like if I was a man,” Brenda said. “I didn’t even know how I got up but I started walking backwards and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Calm down,’ and we kept talking and stuff and he slammed me into the other wall and I remember tripping over the lamp.”

In the middle of the chaos, Brenda realized their son was watching everything.

In the morning, he had an apology. Brenda had a busted lip, scraped knee, bruises, and choke marks on her neck.

“There were so many things, just little things that I would forgive him about,” Brenda realized. “But that was the last time that we were together, then I realized that I shouldn’t stay anymore ’cause it’s gonna get worse.”

Quietly she called her godparents to come and get her.

“He went to work and then that’s when I packed all my stuff and I left with the baby,” Brenda said.

Brenda stayed at the only shelter in town for a week and a half. When her husband discovered where she was, the local shelter decided she needed to be relocated for everyone’s safety – to De Colores, in Phoenix.

With help at De Colores, Brenda focused on the emotional and practical tools she would need to build a life for herself and her son: she took classes, completed her divorce, looked for work and found out she was eligible to start a VAWA application.

Brenda’s husband tried to convince her to return. He told her he’d given up drinking for martial arts. He completed the process for U.S. citizenship and asked the court for mediation, during which he stayed calm, even as he admitted to hitting her. He accommodated her when it came to custody plans and even helped with her VAWA application. But she didn’t trust him.

“I had a letter that he was becoming a citizen and I had tore it up right before they asked me for it, and they were like ‘we could use that. It’s proof for when you go for your interview with VAWA’,” Brenda recalled. “I remember going back into the dumpster and getting that paper and taping it up with one of the girls who worked there. I remember them telling me to write down my story of how everything happened.”

Brenda began working, juggling part time jobs at restaurants and music stores till she could get enough hours, and thinking about her future. She debated moving closer to her family in Tucson or studying counseling. She also worried about how to explain to their son what had happened to their family and how co-parenting would work with her ex-husband.

Both Brenda’s divorce and her VAWA application were finalized in 2011. Now she is a legal resident and hopes, when she is eligible, to apply for citizenship.

Her relationship with her son’s father has also improved with time – but Brenda is still cautious about what information she gives her ex-husband.

Brenda is grateful for the community support she found at De Colores; she credits this place for providing her with a sense of direction…literally. While staff counseled her and helped her navigate her legal challenges, other women at the shelter helped her learn her way around the city, including the limited but complicated busing system.

“I would be on the bus all the time,” Brenda said. “You know how hot it gets here in Arizona, I would take my stroller to push [my son] and he would walk if it was close by and his little legs would get tired.”

Brenda is finally able to put the abuse behind her. She worked and saved and now has achieved a hard-won independence, the kind that comes when you are finally in the driver’s seat of your own life.

“On the day we were going to get a car, we were going to be okay,” Brenda said. “I remember that and now it was like we have our car, we’re a little more stable than it was before.”

The Client Who Became Staff

Many former clients of De Colores stay connected with the shelter, even though being there forces them to relive the worst experiences of their lives.

For survivors of domestic abuse, hearing other women’s stories can be painful reminders; the feelings can all come rushing back.

“I didn’t know I was going to cry,” Magda remarked as she told her story. She twisted a perfectly folded handkerchief between her fingers and fought to regain her composure.

Magda was one of the former residents who volunteered at De Colores. But she wanted to do more to help women break free of the prison of abuse. As of Fall 2014, it is often Magda who answers the phone as a house manager. With each call she remembers her own first contact with De Colores.

“When a woman calls here, I try to be friendly, because when I called here, [she] calmed me down,” Magda recalled. “It was good. I was helped by everyone but she was the main one who help me to come here, despite the thought I had of this place.”

Now when Magda arrives at the shelter for work, she comes on her own terms.

“Since the first time I came here, I had the feeling that I could do this work,” Magda said. “After few days I told her I wanted to work here and she told me that it could be possible. Over the time they accept me to work here and here I am!”



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