Sunday, March 25, 2007

Transient Honeymoons

The 1995 criminal trial of O. J. Simpson for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman has been called “a great trash novel come to life," and evidently, the most famous case of domestic violence in history. Simpson's surreal Bronco ride on the day of his arrest and three months of televised courtroom testimony turned countless viewers into Simpson trial junkies, which definitively changed the national court system in regards to domestic violence, which also raised awareness to psychologists, sociologists and social workers in the world.

Stars and common individuals can be victims of former prince or princess charming who turned into monsters. Domestic violence is expressed in many forms: it can be physical, verbal, sexual, emotional or economic abuse to exert power or control over someone from making a free choice. It has become a major public health problem in the United States, specifically in South Florida, affecting all ages, cultural or ethnic groups and social classes. Rape, incest, and dating violence are all forms of domestic violence. Usually, victims of domestic violence are women and children, and perpetrators of domestic are most often men. However, the term “domestic violence” tends to overlook men and violence between same-sex partners. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention prefers the most specific term: intimate partner violence (IPV)

Indeed, this social problem has touched the lives of many people in the country, including immigrants like Bertha Oliveros, a 56-year-old woman from El Salvador. She has lived in Homestead for more than 8 years, although she didn’t have a legal status at that time. She came to live with her husband Antonio Cruz, who owned a little farm there. They never had kids, and all her relatives live in Chalatenango, a small town in El Salvador. Things worked wonderfully; he was a responsible man and took care of his wife, but three years later, he began to change.

“When I first came to Homestead after many years of not seeing him, he was very attentive. He treated me like a queen, we were always going places and bought me flowers. But all of the sudden he started to change. He became a very angry man, probably because of his hard job in the farm. He got drunk every weekend, and that was the beginning of a terrible nightmare. He began to hit me, and I tried to run from him. I once hid in the bathroom, waiting for him to leave or just fall asleep,” she said.

Oliveros recognized she didn’t call the police in advance because she was afraid of being deported to El Salvador. “My husband took advantage of this situation. He was always threatened me if I didn’t do what he wanted to do. I tried to do my best to change his behavior, but there was nothing I could do, and he didn’t want to change. I really missed the sweetest part of his soul,” she said.

His violent attitude turned out to be an everyday situation. She always tried to keep peace and harmony at home. She cleaned the house and made food for her husband when he came back from his job, but none of these actions worked. In a desperate attempt, Oliveros received advice from some friends who told her to call the Department of Human Resources from the Florida Department of Children and Families. “I definitively took this courageous step because I wanted to have a better future for me. I wanted to come back to my hometown, but I thought it twice.” Oliveros said. On September 25th, 2002, she fled her house, filed a divorce and a restraining order afterwards.

“When I walk out of that house, I’ve never seen him again,” Oliveros said.

Like Oliveros, immigrant women see their violent husbands as their only means of economic support, and even though she had some friends in Washington, DC, she could not reach them because of the lack of money. Some women from Central and South America keep traditions from home; consequently, this has also contributed to her reluctance to denounce the batterers. Latino families consider family a very important part in their lives, and the strongest feeling among them is loyalty. The concepts of marianismo and machismo play an important role in Latino communities, and both cases apply to Oliveros and Cruz.

Marianismo, according to social workers and experts, indicates submission, self-sacrifice and stoicism for women, whereas machismo contains positive and negative characteristics for men. Machismo also implies sexual prowess, pride, courage, and aggressive behavior, and the belief that men are physically and morally superior to women.

Oliveros, in her case, did not want to divorce, and she wanted to save her family instead. She explained that divorce is such a stigma in her town that women might never be able to remarry again. If a woman leaves the house, she’s responsible for the end of the marriage, even though she is a victim. “This form of teaching has stuck in my life forever, but I said to myself, ‘Is this the life I must deserve?’ I don’t think so,” she said.

She received all the necessary help to overcome her trauma. The Department of Human Resources provided her child care, transportation, a place to stay, a job, money, and a place to keep their escape bag. She keeps her identification; birth certificate and Social Security cards for self and children; checkbook; and keys for his little room at “The Lodge,” a shelter in North Miami Beach.

Family and Children Department Social Service Supervisor Paula Owen helped Oliveros ease her emotional pains. Owen has worked at the Department for more than 10 years. She has treated special cases like raping, physical abuse and other assaults between couples. “We are here to listen. We respect their choices, and I personally talk to the victims about safety issues,” she said.

According to her, most of the cases come from Hispanic and Black communities, as well as same-sex intimate relationship problems. The Family and Children Hotline received many calls from victims, but most of them is just to get information about how to prevent domestic violence.

“We try to help as much as we can. Unfortunately, domestic violence is increasing. Usually, men tend to attack their spouses, and it’s because of how our society is structured, you know, women stay at home and they are submissive to their husband. But we have seen cases that women attack their husbands, just by killing them or burning them inside their apartments,” she said.

Owen’s description corroborate statistics. According to the National Violence Against Women Survey, 890,000 Hispanic women and 450,000 men are raped or physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually. About 25% of women and 8% of men reported being raped or physically mistreated by a current spouse, and 39% of female victims of violence reported being injured. An estimated 500,000 female victims use medical services as a result of violence-related injuries, and 62% of these women were seen in emergency rooms.

Owen also pointed out that another barrier to denounce IPV is lack of information. Although most of the Miami police officers and social workers are bilingual, women believe they don’t speak their native language, and this makes gaining access to information and services difficult. Owen states that if women leave their husbands, they “are also unaware that they may be eligible for child support and financial assistance from the state.”

In Florida, more than 90 percent of the population believe IPV is widespread, according to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement 2002 report. The steady increase in domestic violence cases in 1998 ended, but it skyrocketed in 2001, with more than 124,000 cases. More than 40 percent of households have experience some violence, and almost half of the population surveyed reporting a victim of domestic violence and the vast majority-almost 92 %- indicate that the treatment should be required for people who have physically abused someone.

In April 2002, Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed a new legislation that strengthens existing domestic violence statutes and amends several statutes to make the definition of domestic violence consistent. The legislation reduced the burdens of domestic violence victims seeking protective order by eliminating the filing fee. In state courts last year, more than 58,000 people requested injunctions to prohibit contact by domestic violence offenders.

In the national spectrum, Congress enacted other special immigration protections for women abused by their citizen or lawful permanent resident in the Violence Against Women Act (WAWA), in 1994. This law contains provisions that limit the ability of the abuser to use immigration threats to control his immigrant spouse or child. In order to be eligible for this form of immigration belief, the battered woman must generally show she is a person of good moral character with no criminal record, that she is married to the citizen in good faith, and that the citizen or permanent resident subjected her to battery or extreme cruelty.

If the person is not eligible for VAWA, the victim may be eligible under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (VTPA 2000) for the newly created nonimmigrant crime victim visa, also known as “U visa,” which is offered to a limited group of immigrant crime victims who have suffered substantial physical or emotional injury.
However, Owen think the government’s intervention is not enough. “I praise government’s attention toward illegal immigrants, but the real problem is inside society. It is a task that has to be tackled jointly by the government and the society at large. Ethnic groups and the community in general must acquire conscience to battle at the side of the government,” Owen said.

Miami Beach Police Department Officer Cora Mann agreed with Owen’s position, but she also pointed out law enforcement’s effort to improve family services. “It is true that police officers go to the victim’s house and take the batterer out and place him in a motel or someplace far away from the house. We understand this is not enough, but there’s nothing we can do beyond because we follow government’s patterns. I agree that the problem must be fixed inside the family. For this reason, Master’s Violence Coordinator Latidea Johnson and I are working to help victims a little bit more,” she explained.

Miami Springs Lieutenant Michael Cole explained that domestic violence can be partially controlled. “We can arrest the person and take him out, and we understand that once he got out of jail, he may kill his wife or children. But we have to recognize that twenty years ago, we could not step into this problem, and thanks to domestic violence injunction enacted in the 1980s helped us take actions,” he said.

Lieutenant Cole recalled one of the most terrible cases of domestic violence in Miami Springs. “This happened five years ago. It was the story of a woman who was terribly beaten, and I’ve got proofs, like pictures. The problem was she didn’t want to accuse her husband, and even though we tried to insist, she didn’t do it, and her case was ignored. If people don’t cooperate, this is something we can’t do,” he said.

Nevertheless, there are organizations such as The Advocacy Group in Miami, which keeps track of an individual accused of domestic violence. This program also helped IPV victims by providing shelter and financial support. Program Coordinator Elaine Martinez stated that if the batterer has a hostile behavior toward his spouse, “it will be notified to the court, but after that, we can’t do anything else,” she said. The Advocacy Group has also a shelter whose location cannot be revealed for security purposes.

Domestic violence has an enormous impact on the health care system. Homicide, injury, mental illness, substance abuse, and the legacy of violence from generation from generation may all be related to domestic violence. Women are the most frequent consumers of health care services and the most common victims of domestic violence. This puts health care providers in the best position to identify victims.

Sadly, the shame and fear surrounding domestic violence silence victims. A research done by the Family Violence Prevention Fund found out that 62 percent of abused women did not discuss these incidents with their physicians and 57 percent did not discuss the incidents with anyone. As a result, few health care providers have few access to victims, even though they are alert to signs of potential abuses.

FIU Department of Psychology adjunct professor Sheryl Ferguson depicts that poverty is not the only cause for domestic violence inside immigrant groups. Family stress, impairment, even pregnancy are relevant factors. “Women with annual household incomes below $10,000 are 3 times more likely to suffer abusive violence. But we have seen cases of unemployed, alcoholic men hit their wives regularly, especially when a husband is older and mentally impaired. We have also seen cases when a man feels that a newly born child is going to get more attention from his wife, which stresses her couple.” she said.

Ferguson added that violence is a learned behavior and created a painful legacy in some families, and they respond to tension or conflict with violence because they have not learned any other way to response.

Hispanic women has raised their voices against IPV cases. In Miami, on Oct. 24th, 1999, activist groups organized a march against domestic disturbance, in memory of Gladys Ricart, a Dominican woman who was killed by her ex-boyfriend, Agustin Garcia, on her way to her marriage. In the name of Ricart, every October is the month consecrated as the “March Against Domestic Violence,” in which other organizations take part. One of the most remarkable details about this march is that all women are dressed as brides, or at least in white, to remember Ricart, and also to protest against violent behavior toward a spouse.

Oliveros said she’s lucky that she didn’t die in one of her husband’s attacks, just like Ricart, but she regretted that her case is one more statistic. She is trying to have a normal life, she works at a beauty salon until she comes back to the shelter at 7:00 p.m. Also, she’s taking a 8-week training program as a social worker to help other victims. “I know I’m a victim, but we must stop this vicious chain once and for all. We cannot let other women take the same risks,” she said.

Oliveros is working along with Owen to teach public where to go, which are the phones to call, and where the shelters are. Oliveros has the fortitude to help other women or men through some courses she took months ago. “I want to be a social worker and impart other classes to other victims,” she added.

She will stay at the shelter for one month more until she moves to another city inside the United States. She recognized that her husband left immeasurable damages to her life, which ended up with her marriage. Oliveros understands that God has a purpose on her life, and she had to go through this painful situation to advice other women.

She wakes up every morning with renewed hope. “I love life more than ever, and I haven’t given up on the possibility to find a true love,” she laughingly said.

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