The Oklahoman



that an abusive father may be deported if their mother presses for justice.

And, what might be standard processes for women who are in the country legally can, for immigrants, turn into a nightmare.

For a woman to leave her abuser and get a separate apartment or house, she’ll need a Social Security number to set up electricit­y.

But if she is undocument­ed with children, she faces the risk of losing her kids because they live somewhere without power.

If she stays with her abuser, she may lose her kids because of the toxic household, said Jayra Camarena, founder of the Oklahoma City victim’s advocacy organizati­on La Luz Org.

“These are the challenges that our community faces, and it’s not as easy as just packing up and go,” Camarena said.

Ana Perla Nunez is a domestic abuse survivor in Oklahoma City who describes a system that is not “victimfrie­ndly” and leads to “a lot of re-traumatizi­ng.” She ultimately had to get a five-year restrainin­g order against the man who harmed her.

“I never knew that I would find myself in that situation,” Nunez said. “It was a very difficult situation, even though I am educated, had support and a really good job.”

Experts said well-crafted legislatio­n and education — with insights from advocates, health care workers, clergy, teachers and community elders — is key to making the justice system work better not only for the Hispanic community but for all domestic violence survivors.

McConn pointed to SB 1141 in California, which expands protection­s under the state’s Domestic Violence Prevention Act by adding a “coercive control” element of abuse to the statute.

While some critics argue the law will create confusion and lead to more litigation, McConn said the law allows a victim to seek a restrainin­g order not only on grounds of physical abuse but also on the basis of coercive control, which includes emotional, financial, legal and technologi­cal abuse.

“Unfortunat­ely, the silence plays into the hands of the abuser,” McConn said. “We often say that domestic violence thrives in silence, isolation, and shame. The abuser counts on this and it enables him to further exert his control.”

Did COVID-19 make problem worse?

Last year, Oklahoma City police fielded 9.4% more domestic abuse calls than in 2019, up to 37,228.

There has been widespread speculatio­n — and some anecdotal evidence — that the rise in domestic violence here and elsewhere is related to stay-athome orders imposed during the spread of COVID-19.

Based on a review of 12 U.S. studies, most of which included data from multiple cities, “domestic violence incidents increased 8.1% after jurisdicti­ons imposed pandemic-related lockdown orders,” according to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.

“While the precise dynamics driving the increase are unclear, lockdowns and pandemic-related economic impacts likely exacerbate­d factors typically associated with domestic violence, such as increased male unemployme­nt, stress associated with childcare and homeschool­ing, and increased financial insecurity,” the commission said.

McConn, the victims’ advocate, said one reason for the increase may be that abusers had more access to their victims if they were working from home due to the pandemic, or if the abuser had lost a job and wasn’t leaving the house as much.

“The watchful eye of the abuser was present 24 hours,” McConn said. “Many of our ladies were planning their escape when COVID hit but options like staying with friends or family disappeare­d. Capacity at shelters decreased.”

McConn said women came up with creative reasons to leave the house so they could call her group for resources, or attend support meetings.

“The feeling of being trapped intensified, leading to more women expressing suicidal ideation,” she said. “Add to that court cases being continued, delaying justice. All of which resulted in an increase in danger for women and children.”

Available resources

Resources for intimate partner violence survivors, especially those in the Hispanic community, are increasing.

In Oklahoma City, services provided by La Luz and the Latino Community Developmen­t Agency are in high demand.

La Luz, is a faith-based organizati­on providing therapy, case management and legal assistance for the Hispanic community.

Being culturally specific is “more than speaking Spanish,” said Camarena. Clients feel their values and family systems are understood, solutions can be trusted, when they turn to La Luz.

The Latino Community Developmen­t Agency offers many of the same services, as well as a batterer’s interventi­on program called VIP that can be court-ordered or voluntaril­y joined.

Abusers in the program pay to take classes for a year to learn anger management, sexual respect and how to stop violent or threatenin­g behaviors, LCDA therapist Waleska Esquilin said.

“Initially, in this type of program, there is resistance in wanting to change or modify your behavior,” Esquilin said. “But yes, I have seen people change. … Nowadays, people can find help in many places.”

Larger, less culturally specific organizati­ons like the Palomar Family Justice Center and the YWCA both have full-time, Spanish-speaking staffers. An immigratio­n lawyer recently started working at Palomar.

Therapy and legal advice are the most requested services, but these groups are also trying to make long lasting change.

Supporting one another

Each story of survival is unique. But the message from women who emerged on the other side is the same — help is available and there is hope for the future.

Carrasco leaned on her Catholic faith when escaping her abusive second marriage.

La Luz staff helped nurture that religious connection, and she gained the determinat­ion to provide a better environmen­t for her daughter who has autism when an employee with the LCDA explained that children living in violent environmen­ts are likely to become aggressive or be future victims themselves.

“Kids are not going to live in this situation and be neutral,” Carrasco said. “My daughter, with her condition, is already a bit aggressive. … I do not want that future for my daughter, and if that means that I have to leave him, so be it.”

Survivor Blanca Keiser had a YWCA court advocate attend formal proceeding­s with her so she didn’t have to face her abuser alone. The community of support was helpful because her family doesn’t live close by.

“They were very nice the entire time they were helping me,” Keiser said. “I would like to see us as Hispanics keep receiving help, especially for the ones that are new to the country who don’t know how things work or, maybe they are scared because they are undocument­ed.”

Deep, sustained cultural change paired with easier access to well-funded services is the goal for advocates, service providers and survivors.

Responsibi­lity for those changes trickles down, and survivors say they are ready to work for their community.

“As mothers and women, we have to teach our sons to respect women,” Keiser said. “I wish the people that I grew up with would have told me ‘If this happens, it is not normal.’”

Now single and raising her children, Nunez has gone back to school to finish her master’s degree. She aspires to create a nonprofit that would help large corporatio­ns offer services and job transfers to employees who are victims of domestic abuse.

“What can I do to stop this from happening to somebody else?” Nunez said. “I can’t imagine a woman that is undocument­ed or that doesn’t have the resources or doesn’t speak English or that her church is pressuring her to stay with him. For me, those women are the real warriors.”

To those warriors, Carrasco has a simple message: “Yes, you can.”

“We are survivors, so between us we have to support each other and make our children strong so this can change.”

 ?? CECILIA HERNANDEZ-CROMWELL/TELEMUNDO ?? Latino Community Developmen­t Agency therapist Waleska Esquilin.
CECILIA HERNANDEZ-CROMWELL/TELEMUNDO Latino Community Developmen­t Agency therapist Waleska Esquilin.

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