Editor’s note: This article contains descriptions of a woman’s experience with domestic violence. The Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-866-723-3014, and a fuller list of resources, including for Spanish speakers, is included at the end of the story.
Sofia was 23 years old when the physical abuse with her partner started. It was three years after she had left her home in the Dominican Republic for a new life in Philadelphia.
She was pregnant when he hit her for the first time — and then he left.
“He started with emotional and financial abuse. He did not disclose he was in jail prior to meeting each other,” Sofia said. “I tried to commit suicide. He left me alone for weeks without food or money.”
Sofia, who asked that her name be withheld, is one of the more than 10 million people across the U.S. who struggle with the reality of domestic violence.
Among Latinas in the Philadelphia area, especially immigrants who may be fearful of police or deportation, and face language and cultural barriers, this type of abuse is thought to be severely underreported.
Across the U.S., 42% percent of Hispanic women (and 47% of women overall) in the U.S. report experiencing physical violence, sexual violence, or stalking, according to the CDC. In Pennsylvania, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men experience severe physical violence by a domestic partner. And in Philly, domestic violence intersects with high levels of poverty, homelessness, and job instability that significantly limits survivors’ abilities to escape abuse, according to local advocacy group Women Against Abuse.
In Philly’s Latino community, barriers like traditional gender roles, religions that discourage divorce, and loss of community when fleeing all keep people from seeking help, according to local domestic violence nonprofits. Lack of resources for childcare and public transportation can also make it more difficult to report violations.
These barriers are one reason the new Philadelphia Latina community newsroom VozColectiva produced a printed pamphlet listing resources as one of its first projects.
Una nueva sala de redacción comunitaria en Filadelfia está rompiendo el molde con su enfoque en las latinas
Fears of deportation are also frequently exploited by abusers who are citizens, said Lauren Duff, communications manager at the Pa. Coalition Against Domestic Violence. There’s also the specter that Child Protective Services could come and take kids away. “[Abusers] can use children to manipulate their victims,” Duff told Billy Penn.
This was the case for Sofia, who said she had mixed legal status, which also made it hard to secure a job that paid enough to support her child on her own.
When her partner strangled her, she did not call the police because “he begged for forgiveness,” she said.
Then he began to rape her, Sofia said. “Still, I did not call the police. I was scared. I could never call the police because I was threatened by his family. Nobody called the police.”
Automated translation services, and authorities who don’t speak your language
If you’re a Latina immigrant who is a victim of domestic violence and finally builds up the courage to call a hotline, it’s quite possible you might find there’s no one available who speaks Spanish. Instead, you’re told to stay on the line to be connected to a language translation service.
One phone-based service used by Philadelphia city agencies is LanguageLine Solutions. Users and advocates describe it as “a band-aid”: impersonal and unable to recognize social and cultural cues.
“LanguageLine is not good enough,” said Claudia Leiva, a bilingual counselor at Philly domestic violence nonprofit Women in Transition. “Imagine telling a person that doesn’t even know you. How do you develop rapport? You have to understand the cultural context,” she said. “That is so impersonal and so cruel.”
Joanna Otero-Cruz, executive director of Women Against Abuse, echoed the same idea. “If I can speak your language with the first hello, it is a welcoming feeling,” said Otero-Cruz.
If a Spanish speaking domestic violence victim does call the police to begin the legal process of getting a protection from abuse order (like a restraining order), resources to help them understand their rights and responsibilities are not always available, said Kira Bellolio, program director of the Family Wellness Department at Congreso de Latinos Unidos, a 46-year-old Philly nonprofit that, among many other things, provides support to survivors seeking economic, physical, and emotional self-sufficiency.
“We were seeing the translator at court not being accessible,” Bellolio told Billy Penn. “Or when making a police report we had to accompany survivors [to translate for them].”
Sometimes, victims who don’t speak English might get overlooked by police, said Susan Pearlstein of the Family Law Unit at Philadelphia Legal Assistance.
“An officer comes out and they talk to the abuser, because the victim doesn’t speak the language,” Pearlstein said. “They don’t call for an interpreter and they just talk to the abuser directly.”
If it takes hours for police to arrive at the scene, Pearlstein said, the victim may become scared of what reporting might entail. “Once you’ve been through the system, a lot of people realize how difficult it is and don’t want to go through it,” she said. “It’s really hard on domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, and worse for people who are undocumented or don’t speak English.”
Philadelphia police are trained in culturally appropriate approaches, said PPD spokesperson Ofc. Eric McLaurin, and department policy dictates that when officers arrive at a domestic violence call, they must provide a notice of rights in Spanish to Spanish speakers.
However, Leiva, of Women in Transition, said she has found police are often not well versed in the cultural context of the Latino community.
“You can counsel a woman going through domestic violence,” Leiva said. “But if she doesn’t feel safe with the police, how do you encourage her to do safety planning?”
Community support for food and housing can be key
Sofia and her first born were eventually able to leave her abuser in 2009, with help from Congreso de Latinos Unidos.
“They spoke Spanish. I needed to tell my story,” she said. An assistant there asked if she wanted to file a protection from abuse order and, at the time, she refused. “I was terrified,” she said.
The organization was there for her again in 2020, when she gave birth to a second child. “Congreso gave me food,” Sofia said. “Congreso referred me to HIAS and HIAS provided me with housing assistance and legal help.”
Housing for a victim of domestic violence can make all of the difference in survivorship, experts say. Without access to affordable housing, victims may feel the need to return to their abuser, according to a 2019 report by the Pa. Dept. of Health, which called housing “the number one unmet need among domestic abuse survivors.”
This is especially true for Latino immigrants who are still undocumented.
“Long-term housing options made available through the city and government have a lot of requirements around documentation not specific to Latinos,” said Bellolio, the Congreso program director, adding that some abusers practice financial abuse and may limit access to records and documents needed. Add the language barrier, and it becomes even more difficult.
Sofia eventually applied for a green card through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which provides a path to citizenship for victims of battery or extreme cruelty committed by a U.S. citizen or other related people.
However, Sofia was instead granted a limited work permit and still faces legal instability.
She worries about who would take care of her children during work hours, so nonprofits like Congreso, HIAS, and Women in Transition provide them with financial assistance for rent and counseling.
Resources for Spanish speakers experiencing domestic violence in Philadelphia
If you are in immediate physical danger, call 911
The Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-866-723-3014
- Open 24/7, a partnership between the Lutheran Settlement House, Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Women Against Abuse, and Women in Transition
- Counseling: Call LifeLine (215-751-1111), available 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday
- Free and confidential phone counseling and email responses at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Legal services: Domestic Violence Initiative by phone (215-832-0900) or email email@example.com
- HIAS can help by providing legal services for U visas, T visas, work authorization for survivors of domestic violence, and other programs
- Shelters: Call 866-723-3014 for information
- Legal helpline: PA Safe Law can be called at 1-833-727-2335 available 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday
- Services: General guidance, information about the legal process, forms and resources, referrals
- Counseling: Call the counseling line at 215-763- 8870 ext. 1
- Legal services: Family Law Hotline at 215-981-3838 between 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays
- Legal services, housing support, mental health services: Contact project manager Cathy Jeong at firstname.lastname@example.org for an eligibility screening