common and serious obstacle to justice for Latina victims of rape
and domestic violence is a fear of calling police for help in
the first place; fear that police may report them to the INS,
that authorities may take their children, that they might not
be understood, or just plain fear of the police.
Sometimes the fear
can be overcome with good information, but far too often the fear
prevails, and the women is cut off from even the possiblity of
help. In this issue of "Justicia" (November, 1999) we focus on
this fear of calling police as a first step in finding solutions.
The case examples that
follow are from clients of Women's Justice Center who have given
permission to tell their story so that things will be better for
the next woman. Their names have been changed to protect them.
called us only after much pressuring from a friend. You could
tell by the tone of Lupe's voice that she was nearly as afraid
of talking to us as she was of talking to police. But her husband's
beatings were escalating. She finally had to talk to someone.
As in most cases of
domestic violence where the woman is not a U.S. citizen, Lupe's
husband was threatening that if she called police, the police
would call INS, and she would be deported.
We reassured Lupe
that as a crime victim no police officer in Sonoma county would
even ask about her immigration status, and if by chance they became
aware of it, police still wouldn't report her. Lupe wasn't reassured.
So we told her that in the last six years, we didn't know of one
case where police had reported a crime victim to immigration.
Lupe wasn't convinced.
She told us she had heard that Windsor police broke into a Latino
home at night with INS agents, without a warrant, with guns drawn,
and that people were taken away. We tried to explain to Lupe that
this was different from a situation in which a crime victim is
calling police for help. But to no avail. The vivid reality of
police and INS acting as one was overpowering. Lupe could not
bring herself to reach out to police for the help she so badly
An especially telling
detail in Lupe's story is that at the time of the Windsor police/INS
raid a year ago, Lupe had not yet arrived in the United States.
Even infrequent police participation in INS raids ignites such
lasting terror among immigrants as to extinguish for a long time
the essential trust that must exist between community and police.
of Losing the Children
we feel confident trying to convince immigrant women that police
won't report them to the INS, it's a different story when it comes
to alleviating prevalent fears in the Latino community that going
to police for help may result in having their children taken away.
Tragically, it happens too often.
When Andrea came
home from work one day, she was horrified to see that her young
daughter had injuries in her vaginal area. Andrea immediately
took her daughter to the doctor and the doctor called police.
The police asked Andrea to bring her daughter that same day to
the Redwood Children's Center for a sexual assault exam.
At RCC, a Spanish-speaking
worker took Andrea aside and told her that this is the place where
they keep children who have been removed from the home. "It's
likely you're going to lose your daughter too."
"I didn't know
what to do," says Andrea. "I started crying, I wanted to pick
up my daughter and run." Police also told Andrea that first day
that if she didn't cooperate, they could take her children. This
even though Andrea was cooperating fully.
This threat to mothers
by authorities of "cooperate or we can take your children" is
common in cases of child abuse. It strikes terror in the hearts
of mothers, mothers who are already horrified by the discovery
of suspected abuse. Worse yet--and more frequently in the case
of Latinas--these threats are all too often carried out.
Sandra and her
husband have been raising their two young children in Sonoma County.
Last year, when the couple heard that the husband's other daughter
by his first marriage was being abused in Mexico, they agreed
to bring the girl here to live with them.
Shortly after the
girl arrived, she accused her father of molesting her. Alhough
Sandra's husband was arrested, jailed, and had a court order prohibiting
him from any contact with the children, CPS petitioned to take
custody of all three children from the mother. CPS made no accusations
against the mother other than that she may have been in the house
when the abuse was alleged to have occurred behind locked doors.
Now, nearly a year later, with all charges against the husband
dropped, CPS has still not returned legal custody to the mother.
At no point has CPS raised any suspicion or accusation of wrongdoing
against the mother.
advocates around the country are seeing increased removal of children
from their mothers in domestic violence cases as well as in child
abuse cases, claiming that abuse or domestic violence itself is
proof of the mother's failure to protect. This blaming the mother
severely undermines a mother's strength right at the time she
needs it most. The results can be fatal, as was the case for Maria
Press coverage of the
system failures that led up to the 1996 domestic violence homicide
of Teresa Macias focused mostly on the Sheriff's Department.The
role of Child Protective Services never came fully to light although
it was equally in need of inspection.
One year before
her murder, Teresa reported her husband's sexual abuse of their
youngest child to county authorities. The detective assigned to
the case never interviewed Teresa or her husband, nor as five
weeks went by did he follow any other of the many leads in the
case. During that time, while Teresa waited for help, her husband
forced his way back into the house with threats. Instead of moving
on the investigation, the county took Teresa's three children,
accusing her of failure to protect them from her husband.
Teresa was shattered
by the loss of her children, then doomed by the mandates of CPS.
With the help of her mother, Teresa got her husband out of the
house, but they couldn't stop his relentless stalking. While the
Sheriff's Department was rebuffing Teresa's repeated pleas for
help with the stalking, CPS mandated Teresa into a family reunification
program that required her to meet with her husband if she wanted
to get her children back. Though Teresa begged CPS to stop these
meetings, CPS insisted. was an impossible trap that kept Teresa
from fleeing her husband's steady escalation to murder.
It's difficult to think
of a more destructive policy than having the system turn on the
mothers who come to them for help. Though mothers in all segments
of the community have been caught in this vice, the fear is so
intense among Latina mothers it stops many from risking a plea
Plain Fear of Police
is true that many immigrants bring fears of police brutality and
injustice from their native countries. But police actions here
against Latinos too often do little to assuage these fears. Women
see how some police treat their brothers, sons, husbands, and
neighbors, and conclude that police are the last people they'd
call for help.
In the midst of
a difficult struggle to escape her husband's violence, and a police
response that was unhelpful from the beginning, Claudia called
us one day enraged at what police had done with her teenage son.
He and a group of his Latino friends had skipped out of school
early one day and gone to one of their homes where they had all
been many times before. The parents weren't home, and neighbors
called police. Squads of police came and a helicopter too. Police
barged into the house, pushed the kids to the floor, put guns
to their heads, and when the kids tried to explain they weren't
burglars, police screamed at them to shut up or they would be
At the police station,
when the home owners arrived and told the police that, indeed,
these kids were all friends of their son and were always welcome
in their home, police still did not stop the process, and the
DA filed charges. It was only months later when a judge looked
at the case that charges against the boys were dropped. Claudia
escaped her husband's violence, but she and her children are left
with a bitter distrust of police.
There are many police
and CPS workers in our County who treat people equally, and no
reason we can't insist they all do. It would lift the fears and
open the path to justice for so many.