Domestic violence among Latinos

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"In the beginning, I was young … he was handsome. He said I was beautiful, smart, worthy of love … made me feel that way. And so we were married, walking joyfully together down a church aisle, our union blessed by God. Then came the angry words … the verbal tearing apart. … Now I was made to feel ugly, unintelligent, unworthy of any love, God's or man's. Next came the beatings … unrelenting violence … unceasing pain. I shouldn't stay, but this is my husband … promised forever. He says I deserve it … maybe I do … if I could just be good. I feel so alone … doesn't God hear me when I cry out silently as I lie in bed each night?"

These words from a domestic violence victim open "When I Call for Help," a pastoral response to domestic violence against women from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Every group of humanity experiences domestic violence," said Cathy Hassinger, diocesan Catholic Charities community services director. While there is no conclusive study showing domestic violence occurs more commonly in any particular racial, ethnic or religious population, those who work with victims (85 percent of whom are female) face unique challenges assisting certain cultural groups. Hassinger said this includes Latinos.

One challenge, she said, is cultural. In some cultures, seeking help outside the family or cultural group is considered shameful.

"(The victims) may want to show a good face to the community and not bring attention to negative behavior," said Hassinger. Immigrant communities may feel particular pressure to put on a good face to prevent anti-immigrant attitudes and stereotyping.

Another challenge is overcoming differing cultural perceptions of abuse. Domestic violence, at least certain strains of it, may be acceptable in the perpetrator's home country. Even the victim herself may think it acceptable. Though 160 countries now have legislation against domestic violence, according to U.N. Women, an organization focused on gender equality, enforcement of these laws is another matter. A 2011 study from the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development cited El Salvador as the country with the highest femicide rate in the world - despite legislation to protect women. The Washington area has one of the largest Salvadoran populations in the United States, with one-third of the region's Latino population claiming El Salvador as their country of heritage. Hassinger said that some experts point to machismo, an aggressive pride for masculinity that often casts femininity as inferior, as the cultural impetus for abusing or killing female partners.

Language barriers present another hurdle in assisting victims. A victim who speaks Spanish exclusively may not know her options because shelter fliers and pamphlets are not always translated. She also may feel uncomfortable approaching an office she assumes offers only English services. But Hassinger said that in the urban and suburban areas prevalent in the Arlington Diocese, many shelters offer in-house Spanish language services. When in-house services are not available, shelters use three-way language lines with trained interpreters, allowing the client and social worker to communicate with each other. Community interpreters may be called upon for indigenous Latin American languages, such as Mixtec or Quiché.

The fear of deportation - whether of the victim or the perpetrator - poses another challenge. If the victim is undocumented, the perpetrator may intimidate her into keeping the abuse a secret by telling her he will report her to U.S. Immigration Services if she calls the police. If the perpetrator is the undocumented one, the victim may not report him because she still loves him or relies on him for financial support.

Hassinger believes that fear of deportation accounted for a drop in the number of Latina clients at Bethany House, a Christian women's shelter in Fairfax, during her tenure as executive director. Prior to Prince William County tightening its immigration laws in 2007, about 30 percent of Bethany House clients were Latina. After the reform, Hassinger said the number fell to about 12 percent.

"There's no way you could say that it was because the culture had an extreme change of heart," said Hassinger.

Hassinger said that the Violence Against Women Act is in place to protect victims from deportation. Under VAWA, the victim may be afforded special routes to legal immigration status if she is married to her perpetrator. By completing the VAWA petition, officially known as Form I-360 Self-Petition, the victim may apply for immigration status for herself and her children without her husband's knowledge.

In order to qualify, the victim must have experienced the abuse while married and living in the United States with the perpetrator. The petitioning process also requires submitting evidence of abuse and often involves a review of the victim's criminal record, as well. In the Arlington Diocese, victims may seek assistance with the VAWA petition from the legal office of Catholic Charities Hogar Immigrant Services.

Regardless of a victim's racial, ethnic or cultural background, it can be difficult for her to leave her abuser, said Hassinger.

"She may continue to feel affection and love for the abuser and just wants the abuse to stop," she said. Separating from the perpetrator often requires making drastic financial sacrifices, especially if he is the primary earner. Leaving him can mean choosing homelessness and food insecurity and possibly death. Hassinger added that 50 to 70 percent of domestic violence-related murders occur after the victim leaves home.

"My experience working with these women is that they are very strong," she said. "It is challenging to rebuild after abuse. We have to recognize their resilience."

Find out more

For a breakdown of VAWA requirements, go to

To learn more about the diocese's Catholic Charities Hogar Immigrant Services, go to

Download the National Council for Catholic Women's new domestic violence resource guide in English or Spanish from

Stoddard can be reached at

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015