Denial and confusion are hallmarks for most any domestic violence victim, but those who speak English as a second language or who are immigrants are even more likely to misunderstand what can be done for them—or to receive help. The Hispanic outreach portion of the YWCA's Victim Advocacy program, established in 2009, aims to change all that, beginning with the efforts of two bilingual advocates who trawl the immigrant community to alert victims to their options. The advocates offer assistance with creating safety plans, help victims file for orders of protection, and do court advocacy, often appearing in criminal or civil court with victims—who aren't always from Spanish-speaking countries.
"We don't care where you're from or how you got here, everybody has the right to live without fear of abuse, and we're here to help," says advocate Elizabeth Bonilla, a native of Mexico who immigrated to the U.S. 10 years ago and holds a degree in communications.
The immigration experience is rife with exploitation opportunities for abusers, who may try to assure control by keeping the victim from learning the language, or prey on the fact that most who have relocated in recent years or months are truly cut off from sources of emotional support or family members. Some victims arrive in this country lured by the promise of marriage, says Bonilla. "I see that a lot. Then they get here and they're treated very badly, maybe made to work two or three jobs, or the man is already married. If you're from Asia and that happens, even calling home is a problem. You have no way out. Nobody."
Another issue: There is increased stress on a household merely due to the move; 48 percent of Latinas in one study reported that their partner's violence against them had increased since they came to the United States, according to the national Family Violence Prevention Fund, and a survey of immigrant Korean women found that 60 percent had been battered by their husbands.
Bonilla estimates each bilingual advocate gets 10 new callers a month, and she has 20 open cases on file. She's officially located in the Family Justice Center in East Knoxville, but doesn't stay in place for long. "I am out in the community meeting with victims in safe places—Panera and McDonald's and the Wal-Mart parking lot, these are my friends," she says in a firm but friendly voice. "We've learned quickly to pretend to be a marketer if you have to."
It's highly likely, says Bonilla, that immigrants simply don't realize that what might be acceptable in their native culture is a crime here, including spousal rape or stalking. Their abuser may have told them, "I have certain rights, you are my wife," and "I had to knock you out, I had to make you quiet, you wouldn't shut up." The abuser might further exploit an undocumented worker's status with threats like, "The police will take you, not me," or "No one will believe you."
Some victims come to Bonilla's attention when they show up at work with injuries. "They didn't know there was help, and their employers bring them to the Family Justice Center," she says. "Clients have had black eyes, signs of strangulation, bites, broken bones. But because there was no weapon, and they are from somewhere else, they don't realize there's been a crime committed against them."
Occasionally, a client who's an undocumented worker will qualify for a U Visa, issued to those who have crimes committed against them on American soil, and Bonilla will guide them through the complicated system that sometimes takes a year or more before such a visa is granted. "It isn't like, ‘Oh, she got hit, give her a visa,'" she says. "There are strenuous requirements, and one of them is cooperating with the authorities."
Bonilla's work is covert; most victims contact her on her cell phone, or have a friend call. "To help with a safety plan, we don't even need to know their names," she says.
Two messages she is careful to get across to victims whenever she can: First, she cautions that attempted strangulation is serious, even if it leaves no bruises. "I don't believe the community at large is aware, but ‘He choked me' and ‘He wouldn't let me breathe'—strangulation is probably the easiest way to kill you." Second, when safety planning, she advises her clients to take any incident seriously. "They know their abuser, they can tell something is about to happen. I always tell them, focus on your safety, take that threat to heart."
Like many abuse victims, her clients feel shame and are prone to indecisiveness about their abusers and their options. "It takes the average victim seven times to leave her abuser," she says. "She is basically changing her life in that decision, that might take time. A victim might call us back, trying to drop charges, or change an order of protection. They'll tell me, ‘You're going to be mad,' but I just want to make sure they're safe."
As an advocate, says Bonilla, she sometimes goes home praying that a victim has not made a decision that will cost her life one day. "But in the end, I go home to my husband, my kids, and my house. I have no rights making decisions in anybody's life. But anytime they call, I'll be there."
Do You Need Help?
According to the YWCA's Victim Advocacy Program, here is a list of common abusive behaviors—though they also caution that each situation is individual and unique:
Pressing for quick involvement
Unrealistic expectations—of their mate, a child, or an animal
Attempts to isolate a person from friends and family
Blaming others for problems and stress
Blaming others for his/her own feelings
Hypersensitivity (Victims may feel like they have to "walk on eggshells")
Cruelty to animals or children
"Playful" use of force in sex
Sudden mood changes
If you or someone you know needs help with domestic violence issues, call the YWCA Victim's Advocacy Program
865-215-6383 services in English
865-257-6785 o 865-257-6786 servicios en Espanol (services in Spanish)
865-521-6336 24-hour local crisis line
865-523-6126 YWCA Knoxville