Domestic violence in Philadelphia
Clara Colón lives with her two daughters in South Jersey, where she is always checking her phone and her social media networks because this are the main channels used for other victims of domestic violence to contact her 24/7.
“I want women to realize that they are not alone. I want them to know what they have to do in order to not make the same mistakes I made,” Colón said.
She can’t work, the physical and psychological effects of 13 years of domestic abuse made it impossible for her to do so — Colón is now looking for a job in one of the agencies that help domestic violence victims. What she really wants is to use her experience to help those who are undergoing the same hell she did.
“The first time he beat me was December 1st 1997. I thought it was because he was stressed at work and I forgave him. It was a mistake because now I know that it was like allowing him to beat me next time,” Colón said.
Colón, born in New Jersey from Dominican parents, had married her abuser that same year. He was a police officer in Elizabeth, N.J., who she had known for five years. “He never gave me any reason to think he was an abuser before that incident,” she said.
Her “really hard life” started with the domestic abuse. He beat her regularly (once he broke her rib, another time her nose), he threatened her with his weapon, and he tortured her — leaving her and their daughter without food and money for days — “when I didn’t do what I was told to do,” she said.
The violence didn’t end with the birth of their daughter, as she first anticipated. The girl became a victim too. The abuse didn’t stop during her following pregnancies either. Colón said she lost five unborn babies because of the abuse. She delivered her second daughter before expected, when her waters broke as a result of a punch to her belly.
Colón reported him and tried to find help many times, but for years her efforts fell on deaf ears. She has no doubt that the reason was that her abuser was a member of the police department. “For us, the women who are abused by police officers it is more difficult because we don’t have anyone to go to. When we ask for help and they realize our partner is a police officer and they don’t want to help us. Police officers don’t go against each other.”
Colón said that this attitude extends beyond the individual police. According to her, all her help requests and complaints to her brother-in-law (a police officer), Internal Affairs and law enforcement agencies were also ignored, despite the fact she had several restraining orders placed on her husband, and despite the physical evidence of the abuse.
Another day she won’t forget is the date of the turning point in her situation: August 12, 2010. That was the day her husband threatened her daughter with a gun and when Colón got a restraining order. After that incident her husband turned himself in to the police, but he wasn’t suspended until five years later — after a domestic incident with another partner.
“One month after that August 12, my nightmare began,” Colón said. She refers to the divorce, which took five years and cost her $300,000. Now, neither she nor her daughters have any contact with him. She is fighting to get child support.
“My advice is: when he beats you the first time, leave. Don’t forgive him, because it’s hard but it’s better to be alive than having to hang in there for years. I’m not the only one. This is something I don’t want for anyone. Don’t go back with him, when you give him a chance it’s a sentence.”
One of the those Colón is referring to is María (her name has been changed). She arrived in Philadelphia pregnant and with her husband, who died a few days after their arrival. “One of the police officers who came to investigate was the person who later became my husband, and my abuser.”
María explains that she and her second husband didn’t become friends instantly and they only started dating after four years of what she described as “a very respectful friendship.”
She said that as a boyfriend, he was “possessive and jealous” but she only saw “the good things, how he helped other people and how much the community loved him.” But things got worse when she became pregnant of their first child.
“When we started to be husband and wife he thought I was his property. He always had the last word and it was he who ran everything. Basically he ran my life,” María said.
She explains the pregnancy was “good” but with a lot of arguments between them. From that moment, “I wasn’t allow to leave the house without him, he distanced me from my family. […] I came from a big family and he took from me the freedom of being in contact with my siblings because he didn’t want me to vent with them.”
She started to realize something wasn’t right during the pregnancy of their third child and she started digging into his background where she discovered he had a record of domestic violence with an ex wife she didn’t know about.
“(My husband) told me I was crazy and I was bipolar. I decided to go to a doctor and he told me the changes in my mood were one of the consequences of the abuse I was suffering. I had to ask for psychological assistance because I had so many depressions,” María said.
She said his abuse was mostly emotional but there was also physical abuse. “I tried to justify what he did it to me. I loved him so much, he was an incredible person for me. I was blinded,” she said.
Maria’s sister was the first one to name it “domestic violence” and a workshop Maria went to at Congreso de Latinos Unidos (a community organization in North Philly) opened her eyes.
She said that when her husband realized that she was educating herself on domestic violence, he started to change, “and he calmed my fears and I fell prey again.” With the passage of the time, however, “he started to act the same way, because I was always like that — he’d calm down and I’d go back again,” she said. “I was in what is called the cycle of abuse.”
María told us she had eight reports and restraining orders on file he forced her to dismiss.
“He told me nobody was going to believe me because he was the law. I felt like if I had already lost the battle and I decided to accept everything he was doing to me and to continue with the abuse,” she said.
One day he kicked her out of the home but didn’t allow her to take her kids with her. Then he reported her for abandoning them. Since that time she has been fighting for the custody of the children, who she can only see once a week. Five years later, she is also fighting the abuse in the courts: “This was more than abuse […] I received so many threats that I was terrified.”
As with Colón, María thinks that the fact that her abuser was a police officer is the reason it has taken so long to clear her case, but she wants to clarify: “not all the police officers are bad, but we have to stop this abuse.”
“The first thing you have to do is to talk and to look for help, because I thought I was alone, but we are not, there are agencies that can help us.”
Among those people who helps victims of domestic violence is Rosaura Torres. She knows Maria’s situation firsthand because she was abused by her ex husband (another police officer) for 20 years. She get over it, with many physical and psychological scars, and wrote a book, “Abuse Hidden Behind The Badge,” in which she tells her story. Now she devotes her time to helping victims of domestic abuse.
But she prefers to call them survivors.
“I’m here because I know how it felt when nobody wanted to help. A lot of people turned their backs on me. I’m on Clara and María’s side, and on the side of those people who are afraid,” Torres said.
She offers help to everybody, not just partners of police officers, because she know domestic violence doesn’t discriminate and it’s present on all levels of the society and in every occupation.
Domestic violence and immigration
In some cases the victims suffer more than violence and abuse. When the victim is an immigrant, for example, there is also the fear about legal status being threatened or the fear of deportation if she reports the abuse. This is another mechanism of control commonly used by the abuser.
“If one person in a marriage has legal status and the other person hasn’t, or has maybe an expired Visa, or maybe they entered without inspection — there is a huge power imbalance because one person is always afraid they are going to be deported and the other person may threaten: “I’m going to deport you and you are not going to see your kids again and things like that,” said Diana Bieber, Managing Attorney of Community Programs at Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center.
What many victims of domestic violence don’t know is that the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), from 1994, has a section for those immigrants who are victims of domestic violence.
For example, if a victim of domestic violence is linked to another by a green card, she can apply for one on her own and her partner doesn’t have to know about it. This rule is also applicable to the sons and daughters who may be suffering from abuse.
“(Victims of domestic violence) can apply for a green card — they’ll have to show the same things they would have to do if they were applying together (that it was a good faith marriage, things like that) — but they also need to show that there was abuse. It’s a lot of documentation and it goes to a specialized agency within United States Citizenship Services for a VAWA self petition”, Bieber said.
Another option is an U-Visa. This type of Visa was created to protect and assure the status of victims of crimes, people who suffer from physical or psychological abuse and those who can cooperate in the investigation of criminal activities. In these cases the fear of deportation can also prevent the victim from reporting the abuse.
“A lot of people are afraid of that. This is where the U-Visa can really be helpful and there is also a guidance for ICE that says that someone who is a victim of domestic violence is the lowest priority for deportation,” Bieber said.
The attorney clarifies that although this is not law, it’s guidance. “We work with a number of victims and I can say that in these areas ... we haven’t seen anyone we work with be referred to ICE as a consequence of reporting domestic violence ... They really should know that if they call they might be eligible for a U-Visa.”
There is also a third possibility, which is a cancellation of removal and adjustment of status. This is an option for those who meet the requirements established by VAWA — you have maintained continuous physical presence in the United States for three years or more, and you have been a person of good moral character, the removal would result in extreme hardship to you or your child who is the child of a United States citizen or lawful permanent resident, among others.
For all these reasons, Bieber’s advice is: “First of all, your safety is the most important thing. Reach out for help. Most domestic violence agencies, if you tell them that you are worried about your immigration status, can put you in touch with a lawyer who can help you.”
Bieber also recommends involving an attorney in the process. “Attorneys needs to sit down and take a look at the whole situation. Because you don’t want to be filing these applications on your own or with someone who doesn’t have expertise in them. Because you can end up in worse trouble.”
Bieber said: “We need the cooperation of the victims, the idea is to help people to feel safe because if someone does feel safe they’re going to keep cooperating, and someone who doesn’t feel safe is not going to show up in court, and then there is no conviction, and there is no consequences for the people who are abusing.”
The main resource on a national level is the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233. It’s a toll free, anonymous and confidential hotline available 24/7.
The City of Philadelphia has its own hotline, 1-866-723-3014. It was created in 2005 and it’s a collaborative effort between the four local domestic violence agencies. In this line there is information about all the resources available, and counselling in several languages.
The Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline gets around 9,500 calls yearly. It was created to connect the victims with the four domestic violence agencies in Philadelphia.
Women Against Abuse is one of them. It offers counseling, legal services, education and training and outreach to the community. The organization also has two shelters with more than 100 beds each and a safe at home program, which provides survivors with services and financial assistance.
Another organization in the city is Women in Transition, which was created with the intention to offer support to women who are experiencing a transition in her lives due to domestic violence, substance abuse or poverty. The organization also offers peer sessions in which they called Sister Circle.
“The way we look at domestic violence and supporting people who are experiencing domestic violence or who are recovering from substance abuse is that they are in charge of what is happening to them. There, their partners work together to help them feel powerless and what we want is want to give people back the feeling that they are powerful and they can make changes in their lives. If you are feeling stuck or you feel unsafe and you need some support please reach out to us, our services are free and we are here to help you. We don’t want to tell you what to do, we want to help you what you want to do,” said Zoey Nesin, community education coordinator for Women in Transition.
The organization also has playcare available, a prep tax service and temporary housing programs for women in danger, in collaboration with other agencies in the city.
The third local organization which helps domestic violence victims is Lutheran Settlement House. This agency, created in 1902, offers a domestic violence program which includes counseling, legal and medical support or advocacy.
Philadelphia has its own organization specialized in domestic violence in the Latino community. It is Congreso de Latinos Unidos, which offers victims of domestic violence a wide range of bilingual services throughout the Latinas Domestic Violence Program.
According to Amy Eusebio, director of Women’s Wellness and Health Promotion at Congreso, the program is divided in four sections: adult counseling, children’s counseling (from 6 to 18 years old), a 24-hour hotline, and non-emergency housing assistance. They also develop workshops against domestic violence throughout the community.
In the last fiscal year, 2,225 men and women (most of them were Latino immigrants who speak Spanish) requested Congreso’s help. 535 of them are still in the program.
“We are not forcing them to make a decision. What we do is to offer them option and help them to decide,” Eusebio said.
The program (available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Congreso building in North Philly) recently received a grant which will allow them to have a legal expert in the team.
“The idea of this project is to offer people with experience of domestic violence legal support in everything that’s family related, from custody to divorce or child support,” Eusebio said.
“Usually, when a victim comes seeking help it may be the only moment they can possibly do it, or maybe they are running away from home,” Eusebio said. “The idea of referring them to another place for them to get legal support is very difficult.”
Eusebio added that Congreso’s help is available for men and women, no matter where they come from or what language they speak.
“Here at Congreso all the services are free and confidential. Once you are inside of our building nobody needs to know why you are here. I think this is something people like.”
The best example of Congreso’s leadership is its CEO, Cynthia Figueroa, who has been fighting against domestic violence for decades. Her work was recognized by The Hispanic Bar Association of Pennsylvania’s La Justicia Award.
“I was raised in a predominantly female house and at a very early age we were told that gender was about equality,” Figueroa said.
Her first experience with domestic violence was when she was an undergraduate and was working as a volunteer at a women’s shelter. During that time she also experienced something horrific — the murder of a young woman her mom and she were helping.
In the past decade (between 2005 and 2014) Pennsylvania registered 1,678 deaths related to domestic violence, according to latest Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence annual review. In 2014, 97 victims were killed by their partners — 59 women and 38 men.
“On a personal level I was very impacted by violence against women, and then one of my first experiences at college was working with women who had experienced it,” Figueroa said. “I became very passionate about women rights and particularly ensuring that women of color have access to opportunities.”
She has been working in the field since the 90s with two of the main local agencies: Congreso de Latinos Unidos and Women Against Abuse.
Has something changed since then?
“I think the law has gotten much better and there is a lot more awareness and folks I think understand the reality that victims face better than when I started to do my work ... But there is still a long way to go to eliminate all the kinds of violence which happen on a regular basis.”
For this reason, Figueroa said, there is a lot more that can be done to prevent and eliminate domestic violence in the city.
"There are for agencies which are doing an amazing job. I think there could be more resources to support their work,” she said. “There needs to be more emphasis on support prevention and helping women because it is not only about emergency shelters, it’s about ensuring that women have economic stability and can make the choices to leave their abusers. The hotline that runs citywide and the support services that are offered are great resources but I think the city could do a better job in providing additional resources to this work."
Figueroa also acknowledged the work that Congreso has been doing since the 90s when "it got the state of Pennsylvania to recognize there was a need for a Latina-specific domestic violence organization, because the work that has been done in the city was brave work but the needs of Latinas haven’t been met."
A study conducted by Congreso and Temple University determined the need that existed in eastern North Philadelphia. Thanks to this study, the organization was given a grant which allowed them to create a small program. After two decades, this program has grown and transformed in the great resource that is today for everybody in the city. Because, Figueroa reiterated, the doors of Congreso are open to every citizen in the city of Philadelphia.