By Ada M. Alvarez
For being 23-years-old, Puerto Rican-born Ada Alvarez has accomplished a lot. She is the author of two books, is the youngest novelist in Puerto Rico, has her Masters in Science in Mass Communications with an Investigative and Multimedia Track, named a 2007 Volunteer of the Year and the publisher of a website that garners more than 100,000 visits from around the world.
The reason for her success is her mission to elevate awareness of an old but silent issue -- domestic and teen dating violence. Her first book Lo que no dije (What I didn't say), written when she was 16-years-old, is Alvarez's effort to stop the silence that shrouds the issue.
"I was volunteering at a newspaper called Tineller at 15 and wrote about domestic violence," Alvarez said. "I found out about dating violence and saw that my first boyfriend had many of the signs. Based on the investigation I did for that article, I created my novel and advocate on this issue (dating violence)."
Believing that the first step in helping eradicate domestic violence is for people to recognize it and it's signs, Alvarez created a web site based on her first book. The bilingual site, Lo que no dije, provides visitors with a survey to fill out to determine whether or not they are victims of domestic or teen dating violence, resources to access for help and plans of action to get out of the situation. In addition, Alvarez has chaired over 60 conferences educating the public about the issue.
In 2008, Alvarez came to the United States to pursue her Masters degree. She wanted to write her thesis on whether the dating violence law in Miami was efficient, unlike what could be found in Puerto Rico, and if there were a lot of reported cases.
Yet when the infamous Rihanna and Chris Brown incident happened, Alvarez decided to see if this high-profile case was getting people to pay attention to dating violence. What resulted from her investigation was her thesis "Victims of Silence."
As she did in Puerto Rico with her book, Alvarez has created a companion web site to her work. The Spanish site, Victimas del Silencio, chronicles her investigation into the issue in the Miami/Dade County area.
Currently, Alvarez is working as part of a teen dating violence prevention initiative in the Miami area while applying to universities to pursue a PhD in journalism. Her wish is to become a communications professor and a women's rights leader.
(Editor's Note: This is the final installment of Ada Alvarez's thesis "Victims of Silence.")
Victims of Silence: Till death do us part
On September 23, 2009, Mesac Damas, 32-years-old, was found in Haiti after he killed his wife and five children at their Naples, Florida home. He said he wanted to kill himself too but that a spirit told him that if he did he would not go to heaven.
Damas was charged with six first degree murder charges for his wife Guerline Damas, 32, and their five children: Michzach, 9; Marven, 6; Maven, 5; Megan, 3; and Morgan, 11 months. The six bodies were found on September 19 after family members called the police worried because they hadn't heard from them. The children and their mother had had their throats cut and were stabbed several times. Mesac and Guerline were married for 15 years. They had gotten married at 18, while they were still teens.
The FBI in the Dominican Republic sent a report saying that Damas was in Haiti. He was taken into custody and was brought back to Florida. Mesac and Guerline Damas had had domestic violence incidents before; he had been arrested in January of the same year but was freed, though he beat his wife. He was never taken to court and she didn't get a protection order.
The murder of Guerline Damas and her children might have gone unnoticed had the Damas family not gotten worried that they couldn't contact Guerline. Knowing Mesac's past behavior, the family filed a missing person's report.
Captain Chris Roberts of Collier County found the bodies. The police got a key from the maintenance department at the apartment complex and found the bodies when they entered the unit. The search immediately focused on Mesac.
When Mesac was caught in Haiti, he confessed to the crime. He asked authorities to kill him so he could be buried with his family. It wasn't the first time he had been violent, but he only blames the devil for the murder of his wife and children.
There is no doubt that the Rihanna and Chris Brown incident brought the media's attention to dating violence and made the statistics and non-profit organizations battling against it more visible. Before the high-profile incident, a search of the Google news alert system, which gathers news published throughout the Internet on a specificied topic, found almost ten different news sites reporting monthly about dating violence. After the incident, between April and November 2009, an average of fifteen news sites were publishing daily articles related to dating violence.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence operates as the main organization for domestic violence services in the United States and other coalitions that are divided throughout the state of Florida. The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence has only three programs dedicated to prevention, based on social concepts of gender roles, but they do not have a particular program dedicated to dating violence prevention only. The only program that includes teen dating violence is dedicated to helping victims who are now homeless, this program, however, focuses on intervention and not prevention.
When Representative Kurt Kelly was asked if he received help from the coalition when drafting his dating violence bill, he said, "Yes, after I proposed the law they were enthusiastic and helped through the process."
The help came after the proposal was done. The coalition didn't formulate it, and to this day, the coalition is looking to include proposals from others on dating violence, while their main focus remains on domestic violence.
"I'm happy that I was part of a new but necessary project," said Kelly. There are only two national organizations that were created with dating violence as their main focus before the celebrities' incident, Break the Cycle and End the Abuse, and the biggest sponsor of this cause is Liz Claiborne which has given more than 11 million dollars to projects that target dating violence.
The funds have been used to create a national hotline for teens and a new curriculum for schools called "End the Violence", created by Break the Cycle.
There are some regional organizations that try to address prevention and the majority of them have been founded by parents of a victim or by survivors. Teens Experiencing Abusive Relationships, better known as TEAR, is an organization that was created by six victims of dating violence in New Jersey.
"What we wanted to do was create a network for victims, a support group, and for that we have gone into schools. We have been called more after the incident of Brown and Rihanna, and the saddest thing is that when we talk about it with kids, some justify the violence and blame her (Rihanna) for everything. That's when we see that our work as volunteers is important. We need to tell teens that there is no justification for abuse. On the other hand, it's sad that it had to happen to someone famous to get that much media attention and to create a national impact because, like me, there have been thousands of victims who have had the same or worse beatings as she got. Also, a lot of teens have been killed," said Carrie Speicer, President of TEAR.
Another organization, located in New Mexico, was founded by the parents of Jennifer Ann who was killed by her boyfriend on February 15, 2006. Her father created a non-profit organization in his daughter's name, JenniferAnn.org, to talk about teen dating violence. Though they have material on the Internet, they don't give conferences but they do send out thousands of postcards that define dating violence and create national awareness by mail.
In Florida there is no organization entirely dedicated to dating violence. The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence was created in 1977 by a network of 14 domestic violence shelters where victims are referred usually by the police when their lives are at risk.
It's important to point out that based on police reports from 2002-2008, around 89% of victims were women. The other 11% percent were men, who were abused or were hurt in a domestic violence dispute such as cases where a teen living in a home impacted by domestic violence intervenes in a beating. The Coalition has a hotline to help victims, 1-800-500-1119, and they manage and regulate the shelters of the state, which in Florida number 42.
Miami Dade is the biggest county of Florida with a population (2008) of 2,477,289. There are only two shelters in three locations: Safe Space, North and South, which are operated by the county and Victim Response, Inc./ The Lodge, a non-profit shelter.
Safe Space North has 63 beds, and Safe Space South has 24. As a requirement to get in, the victim must be a woman, must have suffered a previous incident and should be under current threat. She can stay as long as six weeks.
In The Lodge, there are 40 beds and 10 cribs. They operate through donations and they get a small portion of the food and beverage taxes. Victims can stay up to 45 days but can make arrangements for a longer stay if necessary. The Lodge takes women with children, no matter how small, and men. In addition, they have opened up their services to people with disabilities and to the lesbian, gay and transgender community as well.
In general, out of a population of 2.5 million in the county, that had 10,837 arrest cases in 2008 for domestic violence alone, there is a grand total of 127 beds and 10 cribs. None of the shelters, unless the victims come with a judicial order recognizing it as a special case where there exists the threat of danger similar to an adult, takes victims of dating violence.
The shelter that has done more about dating violence is The Lodge, which has posters about dating violence to create awareness and has a program dedicated to analyzing the media and gender violence, where they discuss what are healthy relationships.
In the beginning, The Lodge didn't have a program that addressed dating violence specifically, but they requested funds to set up a local prevention team on the issue based on research. Their proposal was accepted and they received a grant that will enable them to start doing research about dating violence in the community and two schools in the county: JosÃ© de Diego Middle School and Booker T. Washington High School. They will start the program in 2010.
"We have seen a change in perspective. Prevention has been seen as a priority now, something that before was not even mentioned. If someone asks for funds to treat women who are victims and others ask for money to start a program that tackles the problem from the beginning, the prevention program is seen as a good investment.
"The Chris Brown and Rihanna dating violence case can be seen as a positive when analyzing its impact. People are more aware of unhealthy relationships sooner now, especially in Miami and Florida", said Gheisha Rosario, Director of Social Change in Victim Response and the writer of the awarded grant.
On January 31, 2008 Miami Dade County cut 67% of the budget assigned for services related to domestic violence. Because of this, people were fired and domestic violence became a public health priority on the presidential and local campaigns to ask for more funds for these services.
"Domestic violence is about power and control and when aggressors start losing control over things, violence increases. Less economic control also equals more dependency from the victims", said Jennifer Benton, president of the Counseling and Treatment Center of Abuse.
Dating violence and domestic violence not only cause psychological and physical damage, it's also very expensive. Every year, medical costs of violence incidents caused by spousal or partner abuse cost from three to five billion dollars, based on the study Domestic Violence and Helath Care from 2001.
The Bureau of National Affairs also reports a loss of 100 million dollars in salaries, sick leave, days of absence and lack of productivity at work due to this problem. According to the American Medical Association, every year domestic violence causes 100,000 days of hospitalizations, almost 30,000 cases seen in emergency rooms and 45,000 doctor visits.
What is worse, many health care plans do not cover women. Because doctor appointments are so frequent and repeated, they count domestic violence as a pre-existing condition. However, women's issues were considered in the federal Rescue Plan.
President Obama in his presidential campaign mentioned he would give attention to gender issues, including domestic violence. Joe Biden, author of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 and now vice-president, said he would include in the "rescue" money, funds for domestic violence shelters. On September 29, 2009 the Rescue Plan was approved. It included $225 million dollars to domestic violence and prevention programs and $100 million for the victims.
Many organizations, after the Rihanna and Chris Brown incident, wrote grant proposals asking for money to start new programs related to prevention of domestic violence. Victim Response's proposal; one out of three shelters in Miami Dade county, was approved.
"Prevention is to address things before they occur. In dating violence, we have to learn what is going on out there to develop a plan that will address the issues with the particular needs of youth, now that we are discovering that this is a national problem and it's really spread out," said Annie Lyles in charge of the Prevention Institute of Minnesota.
The money that will go to Florida has not been determined yet, but $140.38 million dollars are going to be assigned to the state programs that work with domestic and dating violence, stalking and rape based on the report done by the White House.
The report says that it will be divided equally (around 2.8 million to each state) but that if new programs are developed in regions where crimes have increased they will be taken into consideration. Thirty percent of that money would go to service providers, 25% for law enforcement officials and 5% to courts. Fifteen percent of what is left will go to the states who will determine how to best put the money to use.
There are $43 million for transitional housing; $21 million for Native American governments to create programs against domestic violence in tribal communities; $8.7 million to state coalitions; $8.6 million for continued education and training and $2.8 million for domestic violence and rape support groups in tribal communities.
The money that is for the victims is assigned as a financial assistance to ensure the victims attain financial independence while she/he gets a job and can sustain her/himself. Because this money was assigned, different organizations have been given the opportunity to present proposals where they request funds for new or existing programs, including prevention programs.
Mr. Woodmass, father of a dead dating violence victim and a psychologist said: "There aren't many studies about dating violence because it's difficult to recruit teens for investigative projects. Getting testimonies is difficult too because a victim could feel that they are threatened. For security reasons, the victims prefer doing it anonymously and for that, focus groups are difficult to promote because they expose them to what the other people say or disclose about them.
"The ex-boyfriends are also around. Unless the ex-boyfriends are in jail, the victims could be in danger if they say something that would piss the boys off. The boys can tell the girls that they love them, but in the end it's how they show it. Slapping or insulting will never be the same as a hug or a kiss."
In the December edition of the magazine Glamour, Rihanna talked about the incident and how it had affected her. After this interview she appeared on TV and said: "I want to help because I didn't know how much of an effect I have on my fans."
Chris Brown said on November 6 that even though he respects Rihanna's decision to talk about what happened, he would prefer that it would be taken as a private matter.
When interviewers asked Rihanna if she had a message for victims, she responded: "Domestic violence is a big secret. Children don't just go out there saying that their parents fight. Young girls can't say to their parents that they are hitting her. You don't let your neighbor know that you fight. It is one of those things that we women hide, because it's shameful. The positive outcome of my case is that people could learn from it. I want to talk as much as possible as a young woman because I feel like I represent a voice that is not being heard. Now, I can talk for those who are silent", concluded Rihanna.
For more information, or if you want to report dating violence, call the national hotline dedicated to dating violence in the United States at: 1-866-331-9474.
They also offer their services in Spanish and during certain hours they have assistants who can chat via their website: www.loveisrespect.org.