‘WE ARE SURVIVORS’
Domestic abuse was part of the story, but not the final chapter for these women
Maria Dolores Vaca Carrasco believed staying single for a decade had healed her heart after an abusive marriage filled with psychological, financial and physical abuse. h A single mother in her early 30s, with an autistic daughter, Carrasco met a new man in 2016 who swept her off her feet. h He was attentive, and he sounded intelligent and self-aware when he talked about why his past relationships didn’t work out. He researched autism and tried to give helpful tips to Carrasco.
She said he was “always looking out for her.”
There were red flags — constant yelling, threatening taunts, rants that caused her to just give up her point rather than fight. Still, she married him within a year of their first date.
Her second marriage was ultimately much like the first.
“I wanted to believe in love again,” she said. “I wanted to believe that my daughter and I were going to find support in a masculine figure. He knew my weak points.”
This was the alleged pattern: He’d try to hit Carrasco’s daughter when the child didn’t behave the way he wanted. When Carrasco intervened, he’d hit her instead, angry she wasn’t accepting his parenting advice.
Carrasco felt she had to stay despite the abuse she accuses her second husband of committing.
“I would tell myself, ‘That is not OK.’ But because of my family and culture, I would tell myself ‘I have to put up with it and stay married because I chose him,’” she said. “It’s incredible for me to think that there were moments that I tried to understand and empathize with him and even tell him, ‘It’s OK.’”
Complicating matters for Carrasco, who came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 18, were subtle threats of having to deal with immigration authorities on her own.
“He was trying to manipulate me,” Carrasco said. “I did get to the point with immigration — OK, send me back. That’s OK.”
Carrasco, who has since gained legal residency status, said she was incorrectly told that while police would respond to 911 calls, she could not file a report against her husband.
“Their response was always very fast, and maybe it was not the way I expected it, but they did arrive,” she said.
Oklahoma City police confirmed they do not have a report of the alleged abuse on file.
A stray hair tie left in the family bathroom sent Carrasco’s husband into a yelling spree. It was the breaking point in their relationship.
It was a Sunday morning, and he was getting dressed to go shopping. Carrasco’s daughter was eating cereal.
“He yelled so loud in the bathroom that I could hear him all the way from the kitchen,” Carrasco said.
He screamed for Carrasco’s daughter to put the hair tie away, and the loud noises were triggering the girl’s autism.
“She walked up to him and hit him on his back. He was going to hit her, and once again, I got in the middle of them,” Carrasco said.
Instead of hitting Carrasco, he said he’d show her what happens if she refused to listen to his parenting advice. He stormed out with her phone, money and car keys, yelling back that he’d like to see how she survived without them.
Carrasco didn’t call 911. Instead, she walked her daughter to an aunt’s house and soon after filed for divorce.
While resources for domestic violence victims in the Hispanic community are growing, there remains a reluctance among some victims to file a police report, and also a multi-layered fear of contacting authorities and outreach groups in the first place.
For those who are undocumented in the Hispanic community, it is often fear of deportation for the abuser or for themselves, said Esperanza McConn, a family law attorney and advocate at the northern California nonprofit WomenSV. This fear comes despite sanctuary laws or other assurances that a report would not lead to removal from the United States. If the abuser is deported and he is the sole income earner, this could be devastating to the family.
“Another added layer is that reaching out to law enforcement can actually place women in more danger,” McConn said. “Sometimes the abuser is told to leave the home to cool off. If the abuser is arrested, they are often held for only a few hours. Either way, the abuser will return home and the woman will have to deal with the dire consequences of calling law enforcement.”
One way to combat these concerns is by having advocates respond to domestic violence calls, along with the police, McConn said.
Another way is to have assurances directly from law enforcement and the court system, she said. Victims don’t support bail reform efforts that would enable domestic violence offenders to get out of jail more quickly.
“If Hispanic women see real accountability on the part of the abusers, it may also help allay fears in reporting to law enforcement,” McConn said.
Some aspects of domestic violence are universal: financial manipulation, physical intimidation, psychological abuse.
But some Hispanic survivors, specifically those who have immigrated to the U.S., face complicating factors.
Language barriers can make it difficult to communicate with police officers responding to a domestic violence call. Sometimes a lack of familiarity with the U.S. justice system in regard to domestic violence laws leads to uncertainty on what legal actions might be taken.
These factors can cause a gap in trust between domestic violence victims and law enforcement officials. Experts say additional training for police could help bridge that gap.
For example, many police lack training in sensitive interviewing techniques and the neurobiology of trauma, said Tara N. Richards, associate professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska.
“Law enforcement officers are trained to be fact finders and poke holes in suspects’ stories,” Richards said. “This type of posture and these interviewing styles don’t work with victims, to earn their trust, to keep them engaged.”
The Oklahoma City Police Department has a 12-person domestic violence unit housed at the Palomar Family Justice Center. Dispelling negative reputations and effectively communicating with victims is a major part of the unit’s job when responding to incidents.
“For us, it’s important to have a compassionate front for victims,” Lt. Dustin Motley said. “The largest challenge for us in most cases is the communication barrier.”
Two bilingual advocates speak Spanish, and the police department’s victim’s services coordinator also speaks Spanish.
The unit detectives handle about 6,000 cases per year. Of the cases involving immigrants, concerns about immigration status are common, according to Motley, but that is not a concern for the police.
“For us, a domestic violence victim is a domestic violence victim. And that’s it,” Motley said. “We’re here to help them get all the resources they need to escape that situation.”
Still, immigration status is a consistent worry for some members of the community, setting up a dangerous Catch-22.
Mimi Marton, director of the Tulsa Immigrant Resources Network with the University of Tulsa College of Law, said the pressure on victims is overwhelming. In some instances, she has seen children sobbing over the possibility
“I wanted to believe in love again. I wanted to believe that my daughter and I were going to find support in a masculine figure. He knew my weak points.”
Maria Dolores Vaca Carrasco