February 27, 2015
Advocates Are Breaking Down Barriers for Domestic Violence Victims of Color. Four of the advocates of color at DAIS address challenges that domestic violence victims of color face – and the work they do each day to break down those barriers. Top Row (left to right): Diara Williams-Sturtevant, Arkeya Echols. Bottom Row (left to right): Wanda McCann-Smith, Virginia Escudero.
Domestic violence knows no boundaries — it touches every facet of our community regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, educational background, professional status and disability status. Every victim faces certain barriers to reaching out for support and services; however, common factors exist that contribute to the difficulty that women of color face in reaching out for support services as well as the prevalent under-reporting of domestic violence within these communities.
Statistics show that African-American women are nearly three times more likely to be murdered by a current or former intimate partner than women of other racial backgrounds (1). Hispanic women are more likely than non-Hispanic women to be raped by a current or former intimate partner, but less likely to report that abuse to authorities (2). The number one killer of African-American women ages 15-34 is homicide by a current or former intimate partner (3). Statistically, the issue of domestic violence has impacted women of color in our community in epidemic proportions.
In 2011, Jacquelyn Boggess and Jill Groblewski authored a report called “Safety & Services: Women of color speak out about their communities.” This report was published by the Center for Family Policy and Practice, based here in Madison, Wisconsin. When asked what survivors want for their communities, an urgent need and top priority was for “personal and cultural understanding,” or what this report calls “empathetic service provision.” In this report, advocates of color also expressed that “agencies should prioritize responding to issues of cultural and class insensitivity that impact low-income survivors who are women of color.”
At DAIS (Domestic Abuse Intervention Services), addressing barriers for all victims as well as offering culturally competent services is critical to providing the best quality of service possible. The mission of DAIS is to empower those affected by domestic violence and advocate for social change through support, education and outreach. DAIS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that runs the only domestic violence shelter in Dane County. It also offers a wide array of services, including a comprehensive crisis response program, a 24-hour help line, and community support groups. Throughout this article, four of the advocates of color that work for DAIS weigh in about the specific challenges that domestic violence victims of color face — and the work they do each day work to break down those barriers.
Barrier: distrust of law enforcement Survivors are fearful of subjecting themselves and loved ones to a criminal and civil justice system they see as sexist, and/or racially and culturally biased
Diara Williams-Sturtevant is the Law Enforcement Advocate Partnership (LEAP) Crisis Response Advocate at DAIS. Diara’s role at DAIS is to work with the Law Enforcement Advocate Partnership (LEAP) to conduct proactive outreach to victims of domestic violence who have had recent contact with the City of Madison Police Department in order to connect them to support services provided by DAIS. When asked what barriers women of color encounter in seeking domestic violence services, she stated, “Many of them do not want to become another statistic and oftentimes they associate DAIS with the criminal justice system. When I am reaching out to clients through the LEAP program, I make sure to mention that any information shared is completely confidential and would not be released without their permission. I tell them that I wouldn’t be able to confirm or deny any details regarding any of our exchanges to the police or to anyone else.”
Diara described cultural competency as being at the forefront of her work as an advocate in order to provide the highest quality of service to a diverse client base. Diara described that, “Whereas African-American women make up the majority of our Emergency Shelter clients, most service providers at DAIS are white.” Diara described that “there is sense of relief when I walk in the room. If you think about it, we are all strangers to our clients. They are coming to a place where no one is familiar and it is important that they feel comfortable and welcome. In that sense race does matter.”
Arkeya Echols, a Family Advocate/Case Manager for DAIS agrees. “People in our shelter look for those that they can relate to, especially in a time of high-stress and trauma. People want to be understood when they come here.” Arkeya’s role is to provide intensive case management services to families residing in the DAIS Emergency Shelter including assistance with housing searches, job searches, access to public assistance, access to medical services and prescription assistance, access to transportation assistance and information about other community resources.
Barrier: skepticism and distrust that shelter and intervention services are not culturally or linguistically competent
Virginia Escudero is a Bilingual Legal Advocate at DAIS. Virginia’s role is to provide legal advocacy services including assisting clients in filing restraining orders, preparing for hearings and offering information related to various court systems. Virginia specifically assists Spanish-speaking clients in navigating the legal system in Wisconsin, although she also works with English-speaking clients. When asked about barriers that women of color face in reaching out for support and services, she stated, “Language is a critical barrier that keeps some people from seeking our services. What I know is that it feels more comfortable for our clients to express themselves, especially trauma, in their native language.” She continues, “I do find that my Latino-American clients are more inclined to open up to me. When I meet in person with a client there is also a sense of comfort in seeing that I have similar physical characteristics to them and that I speak the same language. I can feel a sense of relief coming from these clients.”
Barrier: victims may view the incident as a personal or private matter and often fear retaliation from their abuser
Virginia also mentioned that culture can also be a barrier to seeking domestic violence services. “Our cultures affect how we view domestic violence. For example, where I am from, domestic violence is treated as a private, family matter.” Virginia also mentioned fear and shame as barriers to seeking help, “For many people [long pause], they are afraid that seeking services from DAIS would get them deported or affect their immigration status. They are afraid of being separated from their children.” Virginia wants clients to know that like all DAIS services, legal advocacy services are free of charge to clients and completely confidential.
Wanda McCann-Smith, a Family Advocate/Case Manager for DAIS, emphasized the importance of communications skills as a means to achieving culturally competent service provision. “Lack of critical communication skills creates silence around the issue at hand and perpetuates more misunderstandings. Communication can easily break down when you feel misunderstood.” Wanda believes that we all have a unique role to play in ensuring that the work we do is in alignment with our mission. “When we all come together” she says, “that is when the change takes place.”
According to the aforementioned report, most advocates of color believe that when it comes to situations reflective of a lack of cultural understanding and sensitivity, “the best way to address these concerns would be to work toward having more women of color in agency leadership positions.” In June 2014, four of the advocates of color from DAIS attended the 18th Annual Leadership Institute for People of Color Working to End Domestic Abuse in Madison, Wisconsin. Arkeya, who attended, said that to improve the delivery of culturally competent services at DAIS, it is important for staff to have “opportunities for training and education about other cultures, like what to be sensitive about and how to best communicate with other cultures.” She said, “All black people are not the same – there are so many things that make us different.”
In providing support and advocacy services to victims of domestic violence and their children, DAIS advocates are breaking down the barriers domestic violence victims of color face in reaching out for help when they need it most. Through its holistic approach to client safety and empowerment, DAIS is invested in addressing the community need to improve the delivery of culturally competent domestic violence services by providing in-services and trainings to staff and volunteers and by incorporating inclusivity into organizational practices. Kristin Burki, Director of Services at DAIS stated, “When a domestic violence survivor takes the courageous step to reach out to DAIS for support, it is critical that we are prepared to be responsive to their needs. The trusting relationship that we build with a survivor is one of our greatest advocacy tools, and that relationship can only grow stronger when the survivor feels understood. We can’t understand a survivor without understanding and being responsive to their racial, ethnic or cultural identity.” To learn more about DAIS please visit www.abuseintervention.org.
(1) When Men Murder Women: An Analysis of 2011 Homicide Data. Violence Policy Center (VPC), Washington, DC <www.vpc.org/studies/wmmw2013.pdf>
(2) National Institute of Justice, “Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence” Rockville, MD <www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/181867.pdf>.
(3) Africana Voices Against Violence. Tufts University, Statistics, Medford, MA 2002 <www.ase.tufts.edu/womenscenter>