PHOTOS BY LUIS EDGARDO COTTO | TRANSLATION BY ADRIENNE EVANS
“We help them understand that they are in danger. Information is very important. This country is different from our [Latin American] countries. In this country, there is a lot of help for victims of domestic violence and many do not know it.”
Imagine that your husband mistreats you. Here’s the situation …
He’s never given you much cause for concern, never hit you before, and was in charge of paying all the bills. Your children are fine, or so you thought. You are also a Latin immigrant of humble origin, who yourself had an abusive father. So if your husband demands that you attend to his desires, but still criticizes everything you do and controls the household money down to the penny, you see it as normal.
But now, with the coronavirus crisis, your husband no longer spends the day at work and most nights at the bar. And you have several children who now have to sit all day at home with this person. It can be hell, but it is also a situation that you can escape.
Prior to the COVID-19 scourge, the Boston Medical Center (BMC) Domestic Violence Program received an average of two calls a day from women (more than 90%) or men (less than 10%) who were victims of domestic violence asking for help. Since the pandemic hit, there have been more like 10 such daily calls.
María is one of the four counselors in a BMC program led by Joanne Timmons, who solicits financing from the government and other entities through grants, which she coordinates and administers. (In order to protect herself, María did not want her face to appear in a photo or to use her real name.) She and three other counselors directly care for victims of domestic violence, and have concern for their clients’ safety as well. A few years ago, one of María’s clients was murdered by an abusive partner near the exit of a shelter. Security protocols are now much stricter, and not even the program workers know the exact location of the shelters. Still, they all take extra precautions.
María explains that domestic violence is not only physical; it is also verbal, and in many ways, financial. She said that many Latina immigrant women “feel they have to stay in that abusive relationship” because they don’t know they have alternatives, or that they can receive help.
“My job is to educate them,” María emphasized. She said her job is not “making decisions for [victims],” but rather helping them examine “what is happening in the home” so that, “with a lot of conversation, with a lot of support, in the end they can make a decision” about whether to stay at home or leave, and whether to press charges or not.
“We do not discriminate if they want to stay in the relationship,” María said. “We help them understand that they are in danger. Information is very important. This country is different from our [Latin American] countries. In this country, there is a lot of help for victims of domestic violence and many do not know it.”
María studied business administration in South America and came to the US more than 30 years ago to study English. She fell in love, married, and stayed. Although she started with a job as a baker, soon her concern for others led to her working as a teacher in shelters for children. Many of those years were spent at Casa Myrna, one of the largest facilities serving battered women in New England.
In the BMC’s domestic violence program, coordinators: offer crisis counseling and emotional support; help set priorities and plan next moves; provide resources such as food, shelter and medical care; accompany and advise in court and other appointments for referrals for benefits; get specialized resources like mental health and legal services; sponsor empowerment to study and other assistance programs.
“When I get a call from a battered woman, we respond immediately. We go to the appointment or the hospital where she is and talk without putting pressure on her. Without saying that you have to report the abuser,” said María, who added that the counselors are there for emotional support and helping victims make their own informed decisions.
María and Joanne’s BMC program recently received additional funding for housing. The money will allow them to lodge victims in hotels until they get a place in a shelter as a transition to possible subsidized housing.
“Many women stay at home with the abuser because they have nowhere to go,” María said. “They have no way to pay for their transportation. They have no one to take care of their children. All those things. When they see that there is aid, they can make a decision.”
Abuse can be especially damaging for Latina immigrants. According to María, “they are used to abuse.” She added, “Men, because they work, because they are providers, sometimes feel they can dominate,” and women sometimes feel they have to be submissive and accept whatever their partners say. To combat this problem, María said that she communicates with victims in their own language, educates them about options, and alerts them to the dangers of continuing to live with the abuser. Counselors make clients aware of the repercussions that abuse will have on their children, and also explains that the government can take kids away if it is discovered that there is abuse in the home.
“I speak to them in our language,” María said. “I tell them that we are here to protect them. I explain the law at their level. I tell them what we can do. When they feel confident, they can stop the abuse. They decide whether to report. If they choose to press charges against their partner, we accompany them during the process.”
María said that is the greatest fear of most victims—that their children will be removed. Often, people come to the hospital or help centers after an assault, but refuse to report their abuser. When they learn that the government can take the children away, “they can make an informed decision.” Sometimes, victims leave the house, in which case they still have insecurities around issues like work and housing. Often, they do not speak English, and may not have their papers in order.
BMC’s Domestic Violence Program doesn’t only work with Latina women. They also assist abused men, and have helped all types of people including lawyers and doctors who are victims of abuse.
“A woman who is a lawyer knows all the laws,” María said. “She knows perfectly well that she can report her abuser, but she is afraid. The way to deal with that fear is with a lot of counseling, telling her that she has options. She will understand these, but we do not know if she will accept them. The abuser often perpetrates the abuse very subtly, without other people noticing. Sometimes he can be charming with family, with friends. The woman often says that “everyone loves him. Everyone thinks that he is a good guy.”
According to María, domestic violence increased with the quarantine.
“The children make a lot of noise,” she said. “They are children. The abuser does not want to listen to them. He is not used to being with the children in the house. Possibly, prior to the pandemic, he worked. He arrived home tired. The children were already calm. But now that he is at home all day long, verbal abuse begins. The mother tries to defend the children, and the abuser says, ‘Shut up! Shut the children up!’ Then the violence increases.”
Since January, it has been especially hard to help victims without documents. President Donald Trump established a regulation that prevents government programs from offering many emergency services to the undocumented. Nevertheless, the BMC team lets abused people know there is assistance available (the program can be reached by phone—617-414-5457—or online).
“If they are going through a difficult situation in their home, call us,” María said. “If we do not have the capacity, we are going to call other programs where they can help them. It cannot wait. We call where they have the resources.”
If a problem is imminent, the experienced counselor added, “Go outside. Do not stay in the house. Do not go into the bathroom because there is no way out. Do not go to the kitchen because there are knives. Leave the house. Go to a police station or go to a hospital. … Do not stay.
“Forget the clothes. You don’t need them. Forget about milk, diapers. We provide all of that. Just keep in a box the birth certificates, your passport, identifications. When you have a chance to run away, go out with the box and your children. Call us. There are grants and everything is confidential.”