NEW YORK: Violence forced her family to leave El Salvador, the country where she was born. They were fleeing a civil war in the Central American nation that left in the past rivers of blood and wounds that today haven’t fully healed. Current director of the New York Family Justice Center, an institution where the New York City Hall reaches out to the victims of domestic violence, Anabella Escobar spent part of her childhood in Nicaragua before moving, along with her family, to the United States.
The closeness of the pain that this involuntary trek from one place to another awoke within her a deep sensibility to other people’s situations and ever since she was a high school student –struggling with the travails of a new language and a new life– she knew her calling was helping others. Possessing a maturity that allowed her very little of the excesses of adolescence, Annabella dedicated herself to her education, knowing it was the only path available to become the professional woman she aspired to be. Thanks to the help of her teachers and her school counsellor, whom she remembers with gratitude and affection, she earned a scholarship in a private upstate college, followed by two masters’ degrees in New York City, always focused on the field of psychology. “I’ve always been interested in understanding people’s behavior, to know the mechanisms that make us do what we do.”
Her introduction into the workforce was in the Mental Health Association with Children and Adolescents. “My task consisted on integrating these kids into the community. I understood in that moment that many of them had serious behavior issues that could lead into suicide or homicide; they lived in homes with domestic violence. I understood it was important to help the families, connecting them with people who could help them and, bit by bit, I got more and more involved in the world of domestic violence. In 2005, I decided that this was the field I wanted to focus my career, and I applied to lead a domestic violence shelter in The Bronx.”
Anabella admits that those early years managing a domestic violence shelter weren’t all that easy.
“I was still in my 20s and it was a position of great responsibility but I did learn a lot. The people that came to the shelter were mostly women with children, and I slowly grasped how complex the problem is. It isn’t easy to get away from everything and stay in a shelter. It means to start a whole new life. Who goes through that needs a lot of support. Then I started to study the many different ways we could develop in order to offer a more comprehensive aide, both to adults and their children.”
Because of her excellent performance, she was given the opportunity to start and run another shelter in Manhattan, which is currently the largest in the city. After six years as director of both shelters, she felt it was time to do greater things. Thus, she applied at a position at the Family Justice Center of New York City.
“I started out as Deputy Director and eight months ago they named me Executive Director.”
There are four executive directors who work directly with the New York City Hall.
“We have the aid of 80 volunteers who come from over 21 different community organizations and offer us different types of assistance. We also promote initiatives that, based on our experience, would improve legislation and advice the City Hall on how to focus legal and financial help. For example, we managed to extend the days victims can stay in the shelter. Sometimes, when there’s the threat of harassment and persecution, we help the victims with their court statements.”
What kind of help do you offer to those who come to the Center?
Many kinds. Anyone who arrives to this Center is attended by a counselor who, after studying their case, gives them information on the type of help they can receive. We offer them legal counseling on all branches, psychological therapy, job search assistance, workshops of many kinds and guidance to those who wish to either finish or continue their studies in depth, as well as yoga, meditation, and computer classes. Abuse is not just physical but also psychological and many people who come here have really low self-esteem and wouldn’t dare to take those classes elsewhere. We also have financial advisors that teach them how to manage a budget and improve their credit score.
Do illegal immigrants also have the chance to seek help in the Center?
This service is meant for anyone who needs it. Their legal status doesn’t matter. In fact, many of those immigrants can apply for humanitarian visa and for that, they have the assistance of our legal crew. In some opportunities we’ve identified victims of human trafficking and they have all the support they need.
Are there many instances of human trafficking? How do you identify them?
We’ve a Center in Queens with specialized personnel to identify those instances. That area has the largest number of victims of human trafficking in the city, with one of the reasons being the high concentration of immigrants of all parts of the globe. These are very delicate cases and the counsellor, first of all, has to earn the victim’s trust to then ask a series of questions that allow them to identify if it’s abuse or human trafficking.
Children are the most fragile victims of violent homes and many times, as adults, they become themselves victims or victimizers. What programs do you have aimed at them?
We have many programs aimed at children since most of our clients come with theirs. In Manhattan, 60% of the people who arrive at this Center come with their kids or teenage children. We have therapy for the youngest ones, specialized counselors that connect with them and teach them how to manage their emotions, their behaviors, to understand what is happening in their homes and, if they have left their home to live in a shelter, to deal with those changes. Our efforts are aimed to avoid that this child, as an adult, becomes someone abused or an abuser because sadly many times the cycle repeats itself. We also have a program made especially for teenagers. We organize group therapies because that way they understand that what happens in their homes also happens in many others. These groups have been very effective because young people can talk about their emotions, such as how they feel when they see their parents fighting and live amidst this violence. These are talks that help them and it has been proved that they have a positive impact in their future.
One of the main causes of death for women in Europe is domestic violence. Does the same happen here?
I don’t have backed data for 2015 but last year 311, the city’s emergency hotline, received over 85,000 calls that were complaints related to domestic violence, which equals to 230 calls per day. Of those calls, 7,000 were made requesting information about the shelters. Police answered to over 74,000 incidents of domestic violence. These are very high numbers. The good news is that the domestic violence-related homicide rate in the last 10 years has diminished. It was 63 in 2014 and 49 last year. We believe this is due to the information campaign we’ve created to raise awareness among the different groups within the community.
When people have to move out of the shelter, what alternatives do they have to avoid harassment and threat from those they left behind?
There are subsidies for the victims that have to leave the shelters and rent a new apartment. There are also cases in which we refer them to other public shelters.
Aren’t they exposed to danger leaving a safe space?
We contact the personnel of the other shelter so they know they need to maintain confidentiality and a certain degree of precaution.
Among the victims of abuse and homicide, are there ethnic groups that are more vulnerable than others?
We don’t have ethnicity-specific studies but the African-American community has the highest rate of women murdered due to domestic violence.
Which programs have you developed to inform the community about the services you offer?
These Justice Centers are always open and anyone can come here and ask for assistance. Besides, we visit different communities and do workshops, spreading information. Sometimes we go to the beauty parlors and talk with the women who are there. We do a very meticulous job so everyone knows that they can find assistance, that this assistance is free and the city is not neglecting you. They can come or simply call 311. We also focus on prevention, because we believe that in order to fight domestic violence you have to prevent it. We’ve a school for healthy relationships that is primarily aimed at young people. We know that 72% of preteens of ages 12, 13 and 14, students of Eighth and Ninth Grade, are in a relationship. For them, we have programs that organize talks with other young people that use their own language to explain them the importance of communication when you’re a couple. At the same time, there are talks and workshops aimed at parents and teachers and many of them are done in Spanish.
How is the attendance of Latin American people to these programs?
The Latino community is very open to be informed. Sometimes we find people in churches or other places where they gather. We know that for many churchgoers the topic of divorce and leaving their home is pretty much taboo. We respect their ideas but make it a point to let them know that we exist and that there are many programs that can help them. And the change is noticeable; I’ve witnessed how the people’s minds have changed over the years. Now you can freely talk about domestic abuse and domestic violence. The fact that homicides have dropped at the same time than 311 calls have risen show that people no longer fear and distrust asking for help.
What is the percentage of Latin American people who attend the Justice Centers?
In Manhattan 42% of the people who come seeking assistance are Latin Americans, 30% are African Americans and 20% are white. These numbers increase in the boroughs that have a strong Latino presence, such as The Bronx and Queens.
In some cases, women don’t go to the police because they fear they could be victims of further abuse in the police stations. There are male police officers that make fun of them and don’t give them proper attention.
A few years ago, we established a partnership with the NYPD. We have two officers here trained to guide and assist victims of domestic violence. They can present a complaint directly from the Justice Center. And in all precincts there are two officers who are especially trained to manage cases of domestic violence. We know that more are necessary but in the past, there used to be no officers with that proficiency. It’s not easy to face a case of domestic violence; there are risks and sometimes miscommunications with the victim. We also give talks to the police officers and the idea is to work together for reaching the same goals.
Is domestic violence particularly observed in lower classes or is generalized?
Actually, domestic violence makes no distinctions. I’ve seen people of all social and educational levels. People with professional background come here, even diplomats. It may seem unbelievable, but for them is harder to make a complaint because they are embarrassed to admit that, despite their education or social status, they are victims of domestic violence. In many instances, they don’t come to these centers because they have the economic disposition to afford specialized assistance.
How do you explain that, despite the threats and despite knowing the possibility of assistance, many women return to their homes? Is that a source of frustration for you?
Anabella Escobar, who has dedicated her entire life to the victims of domestic violence, has faced all the challenges of a very delicate profession with dedication and creativity, but above all, a great amount of understanding. Deeply knowledgeable of the human soul, she doesn’t judge nor forces others; she knows the victims have their own decisions to take. Reaffirming this respectfulness, she tells us:
We know that for many it may seem frustrating the fact that so many people decide to go back to their homes knowing they’re going to continue to be victims of violence. But we know that making that step is difficult, they have to face many fears and sometimes people come and go back to their homes up to seven times before making their minds. We pay attention to these women because we know the risks of serious mistreatment increases during these comings and goings because the other person feels is losing control. Abuse and violence soars, abusers become more dangerous and the homicide risk increases. We’re very honest and when we see the risk is high, we say it and offer many solutions, but someone else has the final word and one has to learn to respect their decisions. We know each thing we say to an abuse victim is not in vain and is not wasted. The seed remains; sometimes it takes time to grow but it is there and that’s important. In this context, words like “success” or “failure” have very different meanings. Ours isn’t a job like any other; it’s about helping fragile human beings, many times with low self-esteem, to get their lives together and move on. Any small step toward this direction is a great success.
Translated by José Eduardo González
“A menos pensamiento, pensamiento más tiránico y absorbente.” - Miguel de Unamuno