Digital Deterrence?

Battling a Rise in Domestic Violence

Several weeks ago, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced two domestic-violence initiatives, starting with the digital recording and indexing of all 911 calls. The $4.2 million program will enable prosecutors to obtain 911 recordings within hours, rather than the customary three months, bolstering their evidence against domestic-violence defendants (and all other defendants) during arraignment hearings. The mayor also announced a new advertising campaign that aims to raise public awareness about domestic violence. The campaign was launched in English and Spanish throughout the city's subway and bus systems last Monday, and will run for a month. The new ads try to break stereotypes by depicting clean-cut men of different backgrounds gazing out from behind bars. The caption next to one jailed man, for example, reads, "Employee of the Month. Soccer Coach. Wife Beater."

The new measures come at a time when more and more New Yorkers are enduring violence in their homes. In 2001, New York City's Domestic Violence Hotline received over 190,000 calls, more than double the number of calls received in 1995. Though men are also victims, women are four times as likely to be severely injured by their partners, with the New York City Department of Health estimating that 49 percent of all female homicide victims are killed by intimate partners. Over 60 people in New York have died in domestic-violence incidents this year alone. Most agencies also report that numbers of hot-line calls have shot up since September 11.

In light of these grim numbers, many have received the Bloomberg announcements with optimism. "I'm extremely enthusiastic about the new initiative. We have been looking forward to this for quite a while," says Wanda Lucibello, chief of the Special Victims Division at the district attorney's office in Brooklyn. "When victims are not ready to prosecute, in many cases the 911 recordings will produce non-hearsay evidence that we can hopefully use to put forth a prosecution," she adds. Cynthia Dansby, director of the community-run Park Slope Safe Homes Project in Brooklyn, also agrees. "If the evidence is sketchy but there is a 911 call with banging and screaming in the background, a judge can be more impressed as to the gravity of the situation." Dansby, whose agency works with, among others, underserved domestic-violence victims like lesbians, also commends the new ads, saying that calls to their domestic-violence hot line "skyrocket" after every campaign. The city has posted ads targeting domestic violence since 1995, with last year's ads depicting individuals describing abuse since the terrorist attacks.

But the new measures have triggered controversy for some. One concern is the custody of abuse victims' children. In a class-action lawsuit filed in 2000, plaintiffs alleged that the Administration for Children's Services, as a matter of policy, routinely removes children from abused mothers who are charged with neglect solely for being a victim of domestic violence. A state review in 1999 found that 19 percent of the children removed from their homes were cases involving domestic violence. In a historic turn of events, ACS lost the case, but battered mothers remain dreadfully insecure. Susan Loeb, director of the Battered Women's Resource Center, thinks that though the effort to digitize 911 calls is well intentioned, courts might be unduly influenced by the sound of screaming kids in the background, increasing the risk of removal to foster care. Furthermore, says Loeb, it is often the case that though a domestic-violence victim calls 911, she may decide against pressing charges. This happens for a number of reasons, including financial dependence on the batterer. The recordings will make it easier for prosecutors to go to trial anyway, essentially taking the matter out of a victim's hands.

More important, however, is how far-reaching the new initiatives can be. Many among New York's huge ethnic minority communities are unlikely to call 911 in the first place because they don't speak English. Even worse, many immigrants hold illegal status and won't call for fear of being reported to immigration authorities and deported—a threat already used repeatedly by their abusers. Victims are unlikely to respond to the mayor's ad campaign for exactly the same reasons, says Kala Ganesh, director of the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA), which works with the largest number of immigrant and refugee domestic-violence victims in the city. Even though reporting abuse has no legal bearing on a person's status, many immigrants simply don't know that. According to Ganesh, the huge number of deportations after September 11 have heightened the paranoia—further marginalizing an already fearful and alienated group. "This population [of victims] is a profoundly isolated group, with no access to money, no legal status, and no way to transfer skills," says Ganesh.

The story of one NYANA client, a Pakistani woman whose name they did not want printed, is a grave illustration of the problem. Her husband, who abused her for many years, was a wealthy U.S. green-card holder. One day, the INS knocked on their door and deported him to Pakistan. Though she has won respite from her batterer, the woman is almost worse off than when he lived here and beat her, because his departure ends her legal status in this country. She has no idea how she will make the rent next month. The youngest of her three children is seriously ill, and she only speaks Urdu.

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."

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