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The Fear of Calling Police
En Espanol

A common and serious obstacle to justice for Latina victims of rape and domestic violence is a fear of calling police for help in the first place; fear that police may report them to the INS, that authorities may take their children, that they might not be understood, or just plain fear of the police.

Sometimes the fear can be overcome with good information, but far too often the fear prevails, and the women is cut off from even the possiblity of help. In this issue of "Justicia" (November, 1999) we focus on this fear of calling police as a first step in finding solutions.

The case examples that follow are from clients of Women's Justice Center who have given permission to tell their story so that things will be better for the next woman. Their names have been changed to protect them.

Fear of Deportation

Lupe called us only after much pressuring from a friend. You could tell by the tone of Lupe's voice that she was nearly as afraid of talking to us as she was of talking to police. But her husband's beatings were escalating. She finally had to talk to someone.

As in most cases of domestic violence where the woman is not a U.S. citizen, Lupe's husband was threatening that if she called police, the police would call INS, and she would be deported.

We reassured Lupe that as a crime victim no police officer in Sonoma county would even ask about her immigration status, and if by chance they became aware of it, police still wouldn't report her. Lupe wasn't reassured. So we told her that in the last six years, we didn't know of one case where police had reported a crime victim to immigration.

Lupe wasn't convinced. She told us she had heard that Windsor police broke into a Latino home at night with INS agents, without a warrant, with guns drawn, and that people were taken away. We tried to explain to Lupe that this was different from a situation in which a crime victim is calling police for help. But to no avail. The vivid reality of police and INS acting as one was overpowering. Lupe could not bring herself to reach out to police for the help she so badly needed.

An especially telling detail in Lupe's story is that at the time of the Windsor police/INS raid a year ago, Lupe had not yet arrived in the United States. Even infrequent police participation in INS raids ignites such lasting terror among immigrants as to extinguish for a long time the essential trust that must exist between community and police.

Fear of Losing the Children

Although we feel confident trying to convince immigrant women that police won't report them to the INS, it's a different story when it comes to alleviating prevalent fears in the Latino community that going to police for help may result in having their children taken away. Tragically, it happens too often.

When Andrea came home from work one day, she was horrified to see that her young daughter had injuries in her vaginal area. Andrea immediately took her daughter to the doctor and the doctor called police. The police asked Andrea to bring her daughter that same day to the Redwood Children's Center for a sexual assault exam.

At RCC, a Spanish-speaking worker took Andrea aside and told her that this is the place where they keep children who have been removed from the home. "It's likely you're going to lose your daughter too."

"I didn't know what to do," says Andrea. "I started crying, I wanted to pick up my daughter and run." Police also told Andrea that first day that if she didn't cooperate, they could take her children. This even though Andrea was cooperating fully.

This threat to mothers by authorities of "cooperate or we can take your children" is common in cases of child abuse. It strikes terror in the hearts of mothers, mothers who are already horrified by the discovery of suspected abuse. Worse yet--and more frequently in the case of Latinas--these threats are all too often carried out.

Sandra and her husband have been raising their two young children in Sonoma County. Last year, when the couple heard that the husband's other daughter by his first marriage was being abused in Mexico, they agreed to bring the girl here to live with them.

Shortly after the girl arrived, she accused her father of molesting her. Alhough Sandra's husband was arrested, jailed, and had a court order prohibiting him from any contact with the children, CPS petitioned to take custody of all three children from the mother. CPS made no accusations against the mother other than that she may have been in the house when the abuse was alleged to have occurred behind locked doors. Now, nearly a year later, with all charges against the husband dropped, CPS has still not returned legal custody to the mother. At no point has CPS raised any suspicion or accusation of wrongdoing against the mother.

Victim advocates around the country are seeing increased removal of children from their mothers in domestic violence cases as well as in child abuse cases, claiming that abuse or domestic violence itself is proof of the mother's failure to protect. This blaming the mother severely undermines a mother's strength right at the time she needs it most. The results can be fatal, as was the case for Maria Teresa Macias.

Press coverage of the system failures that led up to the 1996 domestic violence homicide of Teresa Macias focused mostly on the Sheriff's Department.The role of Child Protective Services never came fully to light although it was equally in need of inspection.

One year before her murder, Teresa reported her husband's sexual abuse of their youngest child to county authorities. The detective assigned to the case never interviewed Teresa or her husband, nor as five weeks went by did he follow any other of the many leads in the case. During that time, while Teresa waited for help, her husband forced his way back into the house with threats. Instead of moving on the investigation, the county took Teresa's three children, accusing her of failure to protect them from her husband.

Teresa was shattered by the loss of her children, then doomed by the mandates of CPS. With the help of her mother, Teresa got her husband out of the house, but they couldn't stop his relentless stalking. While the Sheriff's Department was rebuffing Teresa's repeated pleas for help with the stalking, CPS mandated Teresa into a family reunification program that required her to meet with her husband if she wanted to get her children back. Though Teresa begged CPS to stop these meetings, CPS insisted. was an impossible trap that kept Teresa from fleeing her husband's steady escalation to murder.

It's difficult to think of a more destructive policy than having the system turn on the mothers who come to them for help. Though mothers in all segments of the community have been caught in this vice, the fear is so intense among Latina mothers it stops many from risking a plea for help.

Just Plain Fear of Police

It is true that many immigrants bring fears of police brutality and injustice from their native countries. But police actions here against Latinos too often do little to assuage these fears. Women see how some police treat their brothers, sons, husbands, and neighbors, and conclude that police are the last people they'd call for help.

In the midst of a difficult struggle to escape her husband's violence, and a police response that was unhelpful from the beginning, Claudia called us one day enraged at what police had done with her teenage son. He and a group of his Latino friends had skipped out of school early one day and gone to one of their homes where they had all been many times before. The parents weren't home, and neighbors called police. Squads of police came and a helicopter too. Police barged into the house, pushed the kids to the floor, put guns to their heads, and when the kids tried to explain they weren't burglars, police screamed at them to shut up or they would be killed.

At the police station, when the home owners arrived and told the police that, indeed, these kids were all friends of their son and were always welcome in their home, police still did not stop the process, and the DA filed charges. It was only months later when a judge looked at the case that charges against the boys were dropped. Claudia escaped her husband's violence, but she and her children are left with a bitter distrust of police.

There are many police and CPS workers in our County who treat people equally, and no reason we can't insist they all do. It would lift the fears and open the path to justice for so many.

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Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,

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