Reporting Domestic Violence, A Daunting Moment for Some

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LINCOLN, Neb.-- Lincoln Police Officer Tu Tran is making the rounds on a recent night, and he finds himself in familiar territory: He's out responding to another domestic violence call.

In a city of more than 250,000, Tran says domestic disturbances account for the vast majority of the calls he answers.

But in some corners of the community, calling for help can be an agonizing decision, especially among women from immigrant and refugee communities who are too afraid and too ashamed to report their abusive husbands or boyfriends to police.

Cultural and language barriers often get in the way, said Tran, who is of Vietnamese descent. He sometimes serves as a confidant to women in the Vietnamese community who are in abusive relationships.

“I feel like they’re more comfortable talking with me than another officer that doesn’t understand their language,” Tran said during a recent ride-along.

That's because many women who do not speak English, also do not understand laws about domestic violence. What adds to the confusion is often where these women come from, where the police are sometimes corrupt.

A 2010 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that nearly three in 10 women in the United States say they have been raped, physically abused or stalked or suffered from other signs of violent behavior, they may suffer from fear or post traumatic disorder. They may call a crisis hotline, may need shelter, or may miss at least a day of work or school.

Native American women had the highest rate with 46 percent reporting rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime, according to the CDC. The rate for Black women, 43 percent, was nearly as high. And the rate for Hispanic women was 37 percent, compared with about 35 percent for white women.

Among women of Asian descent, the rate was about 20 percent -- but some advocates suspect that rate could be higher, suggesting that Asian Americans, particularly from recent immigrant backgrounds, aren't as willing to admit abuse.

Kheamisa Abdalla, who works as an advocate for the Asian Community and Cultural Center in Lincoln, helps many of Lincoln's refugee and immigrant women, including women from Asia, Africa and the Middle East – places with strong patriarchal traditions.

"They're afraid for their image in front of the community," she said. As a result, "They try to hide it."

Many immigrants and refugees arrive in the United States for better lives, she said.

“So now we come to America thinking it's a great place, so why we suffer again?” she asked. “Most of my job is empowering women, to be strong, to stand for themselves, for their ideas. They have to have a voice; they have to talk.”

Advocates hope that the recent national attention to domestic violence because of the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice incident may help. A video showed the football player hitting his fiancée in an elevator, and the NFL has come under fire because of what some critics call a lax attitude toward the off-field behavior of its star players.

It remains to be seen, however, if all the attention will result in more funding for domestic violence programs.

The Asian community center recently received a $50,000 grant from the Allstate Foundation to help combat domestic violence. But that pool of money, said Sheila Dorsey Vinton, Executive Director of the Asian Center, is being shared among a handful of Lincoln social service agencies.

“We can’t offer enough services,” she said. “Sometimes they don’t even know what they experience is domestic violence and that it’s OK for them not to accept that."

At Voices of Hope, T-shirts hang from one wall representing some of the women who have gotten help from the program. The agency provides service to these women, to empower those who have experienced relationship violence, sexual assault, and abuse.

Patsy Martin, the agency’s communications coordinator, echoed Abdalla's comments about the difficult decisions – the sometimes heart-wrenching decisions, she said – women go through before stepping forward for help, if they ever do.

“What if I do call the police. What's going to happen to him? What’s going to happen to my children?,” she said. “They really want to have an understanding of all that before they move forward.”

Voices of Hope also helps victims from the gay, lesbian and transsexual communities, where some surveys show rates of domestic violence occurring at rates similar to those of heterosexual couples.

But some LGBT advocates say that some victims don’t get the help they need because of the lack of legal recognition of same-sex relationships. In fact, they say, some men and women who remain closeted about their sexuality are less likely to come forward to report abuse from their partner.

While most victims of domestic violence served by Voices of Hope are white women, the agency also serves Hispanic women and other women in the community whose first language might not be English. That language barrier complicates the ordeal that the women are already going through.

Voices of Hope must sometimes scramble to find an interpreter who can help the woman articulate her fears, concerns and experience – and who can help bridge the cultural divides.

Officer Tran sometimes finds himself in that situation as he takes calls from an increasing number of women from his Vietnamese community, reassured, he said, that “someone is there that they can relate to.”