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Advocates want to reach more Latino victims of domestic violence
Ana Lisa Smith, of the Hall County Sheriff's Office, speaks during a domestic violence panel discussion Tuesday. With Smith are fellow panel members Aimee Stowe, left, of Georgia Legal Services, and Rosemary Stefanoff with the Gateway Domestic Violence Center. - photo by Tom Reed

Reaching and connecting with Latino victims of domestic violence is among the greatest challenges facing those who work to provide services for abused women, a discussion panel said Tuesday.

"My concern is too often (help) doesn't reach the Hispanic community," Rosemary Stefanoff, Spanish services coordinator for Gateway Domestic Violence Center, said at the Fourth Annual Domestic Violence Breakfast and Briefing at the Hall County Courthouse. "And we are working on that."

Gateway officials hope to distribute brochures and hang posters inside physicians' offices and other places where abused women will be away from their abusers, offering Spanish-language information about the services the center provides, Stefanoff said.

"So often when women are out in the community, he is there with them. ... If the man is there, (victim service information) is not even looked at," Stefanoff said.

The offices of Hall County's two chief prosecutors handle about 600 domestic violence cases each year, but it's a crime that is consistently underreported, officials say.

Some victims won't report their abusers because of financial dependency, generational acceptance of abuse within the family or fear of embarrassment if police are called to the home, panel members said.

Among Hispanics, the problem of unreported domestic violence is compounded by language barriers and cultural differences.

The experiences Latinos have had with police in their native countries, as well as their immigration status, also may have a chilling effect, said Hall County Sheriff's Deputy Ana Lisa Smith, a patrol officer assigned to the office's domestic violence unit.

"They're deathly afraid of the police, because in the country they come from, the police are corrupt, so when they come here they expect the same thing," Smith said.

"They're afraid that because they're illegal, they're automatically going to be deported if they pick up the phone and ask for help," Smith said.

For some victims, living far from home and being so dependant on the abuser makes reaching out for help difficult, Smith said.

"A lot of them have no family here, no support system," Smith said. "They don't speak the language, they barely know what street they live on, never mind looking for someone to help them."

Aimee Stowe, a staff attorney with the Georgia Legal Services Program, said there are language and cultural barriers to teaching new immigrants that abuse is unacceptable.

"Maybe culturally, within their family, domestic violence is somewhat of an acceptable way of living in a partnership," Stowe said.

Stowe warned against stereotyping cultures and simply conceding "that's just how it is for those people."

"This is not about changing someone's culture or saying it's OK within that culture," Stowe said. "It's about saying it's a human right. The right to live in peace, to not be beaten, to live without being controlled and broken down is a human right, and we need to start thinking of it from that perspective."