Hay Esperanza: There is hope
We’ve heard the statistics so many times, they’ve lost their power to shock: According to the Domestic Violence Resource Center, an estimated one in four women will experience domestic violence; most cases go unreported.
Think about that for a moment. Now click on your Facebook friends list. Which one-fourth of your women-friends have been threatened, kicked, punched, or shoved by people who claim to love them? And would they tell you, or the police, if they had?
A mantle of anguished silence envelops these victims — our friends, family, and neighbors — in secrecy and isolation.
It’s Janisca Williams’s job to reach out and break that anguished silence for a category of victim whose sense of powerlessness can feel overwhelming: Nashville’s Latino community.
“The people I serve are very low income,” Williams says. “Moms with a lot of children. Some of them are just here by themselves with their kids … and sometimes their batterers are their financial supporters.”
Those abusers know just how to exert control, by preying on a new immigrant’s acute feelings of helplessness in an unfamiliar place. “The threats are different,” Williams explains. “Like, ‘I’m going to take the children, and you’re not going to see them ever again,’ or ‘I’m going to call immigration and have you deported.’ They truly believe these batterers. They can brainwash them completely.
Add to that the fact that many of her clients don’t speak English well, don’t know how to navigate local institutions or find help, and may not have legal status here, and you get a perfect storm of isolation, dependency, and fear.
Williams joined the Metro Nashville Police Department as a domestic violence counselor for the Latino community more than a decade ago. Counseling supervisor Carol Harp says that the Spanish-speaking client base more than doubled in Williams’s first year with the MNPD’s Domestic Violence Division. The Puerto Rican native quickly made herself indispensable by counseling victims, connecting them with a network of additional services, acting as police liaison and translator on domestic violence calls, helping victims navigate the legal system, and heading out into the community to let people know that help was available.
Although wearing a police ID earned her a fair measure of suspicion in the Latino community at first, word and trust quickly spread in the neighborhoods she serves. Many of her clients say that they eventually feel more empowered to help themselves in the United States than they did in their home countries, some of which have high crime rates and ill-functioning institutions of justice. “Even though they don’t know the system (here) and they feel isolated,” says Williams, “once they start using the system, they feel better protected than in their countries.”
Here’s another sobering fact about domestic violence: nearly one-third of reported female homicide victims are murdered by an intimate partner. It’s a fact that’s impossible for Williams to forget, and she says she often worries about her clients when she goes home at night. “Sometimes you do get scared and concerned about them,” she says, “and I do a little prayer that they’ll be safe the next day.”
But, she adds, with the empathetic smile that seldom leaves her face, no matter her concern, she can’t force someone to act. She uses phrases like “self determination” and “it’s a process” when she talks about the layered fears her clients must overcome in order to change their lives.
“I have to understand all the circumstances,” she says. “I’m not here to judge … You can never tell people what to do in this position. All you can do is be with them. I have to respect where they are and when they’re ready. If they’re ready, I’m there.”
Williams, diminutive and lovely, exudes an outsized presence — a quietly powerful, compassionate knowingness — when she talks about standing beside her clients as they slowly gather courage to make a move. “With the battered woman syndrome, you feel there’s no escape,” she says. “First, I sit with them and hear what they have to say and then help them through the process of, ‘You did the right thing. Your life is valuable. If somebody cares for you, they have to take care of you, not harm you.’”
She smiles when she describes meeting clients who have chosen to prosecute — they feel lost in the system, in America, and (literally) in the big stately courthouse building, she says. “Some of them are so scared to go to court,” she says, “It’s harder to do justice against somebody that you care for.
“And I say, ‘No, no, no, you’re doing the right thing! You won’t be by yourself. I’ll be there with you.’”
“I dreamt my whole life about being a mother,” says Heidi Jellison. “I never dreamt about a big wedding, honestly never even dreamt about the husband part.” Jellison, a 35-year-old concert harpist and harp teacher, laughs at this last bit, but then her face settles into a quiet solemnity.
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