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Queens Chronicle

Getting away with abuse

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Posted: Thursday, October 15, 2009 12:00 am

State Sen. Hiram Monserrate, who is on trial for slashing his girlfriend’s face, may or may not be guilty — we’ll find out later today — but the publicity surrounding his trial has brought the topic of domestic violence to the forefront and raises a series of social, psychological and justice-related questions.

If a man has used force against his wife or girlfriend, can he redeem himself? Can violence be a one-time thing, or is it indicative of an already-corroded relationship that is destined to result in further battery?

Monserrate’s girlfriend, Karla Giraldo, initially said the defendant attacked her, but quickly changed her story and now claims her injuries were the result of a freak accident. Her claims are key for the defense. After all, why would a victim deny being attacked? Wouldn’t a battered woman want her abuser behind bars?

The answer isn’t that simple, according to domestic violence experts. Many victims choose to stay with abusive partners, defending them for years before calling it quits. Many try to leave more than 10 times before making a successful break. Some never go. Their reasons vary, but most have to do with fear and necessity.

“Women are in the most danger when they try to leave … because that’s when the abuser is the most vulnerable, so they tend to be the most aggressive at that point,” said Adwoa Akhu, a psychologist who works with domestic violence victims and runs a blog about abuse.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 75 percent of domestic assaults happen when a couple is separating or getting divorced. Other studies show that more than one-quarter of the women killed by male partners are killed after they leave, not while the couple is together.

Fear also makes many victims reluctant to call the police or go after their abusers in court.

“Let’s say I call the police, and they come and take him away. … When he gets out [of jail], he’s angrier, and then he comes back and finishes the job that he started before,” said Carmella Marrone, executive director of Women and Work, a program through Queens College which offers job- and life-skills training for immigrants, victims of domestic violence and others who lack the skills necessary to find adequate jobs.

Women don’t just fear for themselves. “You immediately know that you put those people you love at risk,” said Marrone, explaining that an abusive partner may harm a pet and then say, “See what I did there? Your mother is next.”

Fear of retribution is particularly acute when children are involved, Marrone added.

In places like Queens, with substantial immigrant populations, women see even more reasons to stay with their partners, according to Nathaly Rubio-Torio, executive director of Voces Latinas, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Latinas from domestic violence.

“You’re coming here alone, a lot of times in need of papers and documents,” Rubio-Torio said. “You’re very fearful of the police. … You don’t want to draw any kind of attention from law enforcement because you fear deportation.” Those fears carry over even for many naturalized immigrants, she added.

Unlike the fear of retribution, deportation concerns are almost always unfounded. In fact, victims of domestic violence can sometimes get legalized faster than other immigrants.

Battered noncitizens who are married to Americans or permanent residents can petition for permanent residence under the federal Violence Against Women Act. Unmarried non-citizens who have suffered abuse in the U.S. and agree to assist the authorities in investigating and prosecuting the abuser can apply for a U-visa, which typically allows them to remain in the U.S. for up to four years, often with the possibility of extending that time frame.

Deportation fears aside, immigrants are often up against tough financial realities. “A lot of times women get into these relationships out of need,” Rubio-Torio said, explaining that many new arrivals clean houses or babysit, which often doesn’t pay enough to live on. The women end up depending on male partners for financial support.

Then there’s the psychological aspect. “There’s a lot of loneliness and isolation when an immigrant woman comes here,” Rubio-Torio said. “Families and friends are left behind. Life in New York presents constant language and cultural challenges. The city can seem overwhelming. … A woman needs that company, that companionship.”

Rubio-Torio added that many women also feel inadequate. “A lot of times they stay because they feel like they’re not worth much,” she said, explaining that low self esteem sometimes stems from cultural messages immigrant girls hear growing up.

Marrone is quick to note, though, that domestic violence cuts across all ages, ethnicities and socio-economic brackets, and that women with high-powered careers, such as doctors and lawyers, are often most reluctant to report abuse, as they fear it could chip away at their credibility.

Also cutting across social boundaries are the logistical problems — most notably, where to go if you leave.

The city only has about 2,000 shelter beds for battered women, yet in 2008 nearly 235,000 cases of domestic violence were reported, according to Marrone — and nobody knows how many unreported cases there are. That means only one in 100 women who report abuse could go to a shelter if they wanted to. The matter becomes more complicated if older children are in tow, since some shelters don’t admit teenage boys.

Finally, experts note, since abusive relationships usually begin lovingly, victims tend to go into denial and trust that their batterers’ behavior will change. Abusers often say, “I’m sorry” and “I love you” after violent episodes. Many bring flowers or other tokens of affection. There is a brief honeymoon period, and batterers promise that “this will never happen again.”

The problem is that those promises are almost never trustworthy; by the time violence has entered into a relationship, the verbal and psychological abuse has usually become so entrenched that the cycle is bound to continue.

“When batterers commit violence, they’re not out of control, for the large part,” Marrone said. “This is a deliberate choice on their part to take power and control over their partners. … The research bears out that violence escalates over time and that, left unchecked, it will not stop unless … the victim leaves, or the batterer has some revelation and decides, ‘I no longer want to be a batterer.’”

Deciding to stop being a batterer takes a lot more than “I love you” and a bouquet of roses, though; it requires the batterer to internalize that what he (or she) has done is wrong, and it usually requires therapy.

Akhu noted that a lone violent act is not necessarily indicative of ongoing abuse; anyone can get out of control once. To separate habitual abuse from a one-time fight, one has to look at the relationship as a whole.

“Domestic violence is not just physical violence,” Akhu said. “It’s economic control, isolation, verbal abuse. … If those things are not in the relationship, and there’s one bad argument, … then I wouldn’t consider that domestic violence.”

If those factors are present in a relationship, though, women should take heed, advocates say, because once things do get violent, it can be too late. According to the National Institute of Justice, “One in five women killed or severely injured by an intimate partner had no warning: the fatal or life-threatening incident was the first physical violence they had experienced from their partner.”

Given the multitude of reasons victims stick with their partners, it’s not surprising that domestic violence is one of the most under-reported crimes.

Despite its low profile, it is pervasive enough that some label it an epidemic. That’s because, as Marrone puts it, there’s no easy remedy for the cycle of violence.

Abusers should be prosecuted, she said, but “putting people in jail is not going to solve the problem.”

The main thing that needs to happen, she said, is to change prevailing societal attitudes. “The only way this is going to stop is when we as a society — as a community — say this has to stop,” Marrone said, adding that the city should dedicate more resources to creating shelter space and stepping up support and intervention programs.

In addition, Akhu believes educating children is key. “If you know what some of the early signs are to look for, it’s easier to get yourself out before you’re in too deep,” she said, adding that particular emphasis needs to go to children raised in abusive homes, as they are more vulnerable.

Welcome to the discussion.