Language and cultural barriers sorely need to be addressed if minority domestic-violence victims are to become survivors. One woman from Hong Kong (name withheld) finally summoned the nerve to leave her batterer, even though he repeatedly threatened to report her illegal status. But because she only speaks Cantonese, it took months of referrals from one agency to another, and struggling to learn a little English, before she found a social worker who would help her, even though the language barrier is still an issue. "I feel so upset. Who can help me? I don't know how to do this," says the woman in tears.
The problem of language also extends to the court system, which hires interpreters to translate victims' testimonies, but all too often the interpreter is not adequately trained in the issues or may even belong to the victim's tight-knit community, says Mehulla Shah, a South Asian counselor at the New York Asian Women's Center. One Pakistani victim who only speaks Urdu told the Voice that she went to court to fight for custody of her son, only to find that the hired interpreter was a friend of her abusive husband.
The city Office to Combat Domestic Violence has won grants to implement three new programs to address cultural barriers. The Law Enforcement Collaboration Project is working with the police department and 10 community-based organizations to start the first-ever discussion groups bringing together cops, service providers, victims, and survivors from diverse communities. The aim is to help policemen become more culturally competent, as well as to increase rights awareness among ethnic populations. Enhancing cultural awareness among health care providers is the focus of the Domestic Violence Healthcare Education Project, the city's second new initiative. Though these projects are a sorely needed step in the right direction, the first two projects will only run till next June, when the grant money runs out.
The third city program is the creation of Domestic Violence Response Teams in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and the Soundview section of the Bronx, the two communities with the highest number of domestic-violence incidents in 2001. It has already become controversial that these teams will identify high-risk households, and then try to intervene. Questions have been raised as to the ethics of the program, as well as issues of safety both for police barging into volatile situations and for victims, who may face even greater abuse after an intervention.
However, new city initiatives have not changed the advice offered by one Brazilian survivor to other minority victims of violence: "Just learn English."