Located on the southern side of Orange County, Laura’s House helps domestic health survivors.
Laura’s House is a domestic violence agency that works specifically with individuals, the majority being women, that have experienced intimate partner violence and family violence. Their services range from helping victims obtain restraining orders to therapeutic or shelter services. A majority of Laura’s House clients are intimate partner violence victims. Laura’s House also has a 24-hour hotline that one can call in case they need help with their domestic violence situation.
“The vast majority of our clients are non-residents, and we have therapeutic offices in Aliso Viejo and Garden Grove,” says Veronica Stephens, director of the education and outreach department of Laura’s House. “We offer as much help as they need and can help them live that robust life and offer to counsel to them so they can experience the healing process.”
In the U.S., 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men will have sustained severe injuries from intimate partner violence (IPV), according to the 2020 National Library of Medicine report. While Esperanza United, a Latinx non-profit organization, reported in 2021 that 1 in 3 (34.4%) Latinas will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime and 1 in 12 may have in the past 12 months.
Domestic violence dramatically increased during the Covid-19 pandemic stay-at-home orders. “In March and April 2020, our domestic violence hotlines increased by 65%,” says Stephens. Locally, domestic violence has also increased. In Los Angeles County, domestic violence service calls to the Los Angeles Police Department also spiked in April 2020 to nearly 16% more calls than in April 2019.
Stephens said calling the police and making a call for assistance is not always easy for the people experiencing the violence. “To think about how difficult it must have been for them to make that call because their abuser is probably in the other room and the caller is in a closet having to whisper to make this hotline call. Or they would probably go for a walk and make the hotline call. So we saw a dramatic increase in hotline calls,” said Stephens.
Laura’s House was founded in 1994 after a woman named Laura was a victim of domestic violence. Over the years, Laura’s House has provided shelter and supportive services to over 5,000 abused women, men and children. They offer counseling, life skills education and legal advocacy to over 55,000 persons.
October is Domestic Violence awareness month. The light is shined on the victims and what they go through physically and mentally to bring attention to the deeper issue of domestic violence. If you are the victim of domestic abuse or you know someone who is, there is help available for you 24/7. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.
Domestic Violence Awareness Month was launched nationwide in October 1987.
CALÓ NEWS recently interviewed Stephens about domestic violence in general and within the Latinx community.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
VERONICA STEPHENS, ORANGE COUNTY, EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DEPARTMENT, LAURA’S HOUSE, CAUCASIAN, SHE/HER/HERS
CAN DOMESTIC VIOLENCE BE A FORM OF HATE CRIME, EVEN IF NOT LEGALLY? WHY OR WHY NOT?
STEPHENS: We discuss family members for family violence and intimate partner violence. So, I understand from the definition of hate crime that one is specifically targeted because of identity or ethnicity. We are talking about family issues here. Whether they are partners or family violence. Child abuse, elder abuse, sibling on a sibling, or offspring means child-parent violence. Which we will typically see in teenagers. We will see a violent teen that targets and attacks a parent. So, I wouldn’t make that correlation. It is usually rooted in power and control. So we have commonalities. But the actual root of it would go back to the family system and the culture. So, it would be tricky to make that connection to hate crime. Unless they are saying things because of their name and identity, or ethnicity. For example, an in-law situation. Where they target them that way. But not that I have heard. It tends to be that power and control dynamic.
ARE THERE ANY OTHER FORMS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE THAT ARE NOT JUST PHYSICAL?
STEPHENS: Oh, there are so many. Yes. we have emotional harm, and that is the number one harm. So, emotional harm is going to be the paramount one. Some call our hotline and say, “I don’t even know if I qualify for your services because they never laid a hand on me.” So, it is the one that confuses people the most and many factors are behind it. We were all probably raised with “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and we know that’s not true. But regardless if you have been conditioned to let it roll off your back like water on a duck and not to take it personally, that‘s wrong. We are going to take it personally. This is an intimate partner or a family member saying these things. I’m going to mention this very distinctly; the reality is that they all leak into each other.
So, if you have physical harm, such as kicking, scratching, punching, grabbing, pulling the hair, threatening to use weapons, the actual use of weapons, strangulation,all of that goes under physical harm. But again, if you have a family member or an intimate partner doing that to you, it will adversely and emotionally affect you. So, you have duality going on. We got the emotional impact, you have the physical impact, and now you have the psychological impact. If not, you have a psychological impact that you will probably live in terror. It is not uncommon. It would be uncommon NOT to think, “What did I do wrong?” or “What did I do to bring this out?” So, they are thinking, “Okay, I need to behave better. The house should be clean; the kids should be quiet. I shouldn’t have worn what I wore.” They will admit it, even if it is not theirs to own. Then the aggressor will tell them, “I wouldn’t have if you did do this.” So, psychologically they are going to be living in torment.
Then we have gaslighting, which falls under psychological harm as well. So gaslighting is when the dominant aggressor is initially trying to alter the reality of their partner. Maybe calling them names and demoralizing them, publicly humiliating them. Then the partner says, “That’s embarrassing when you do that when we are out with family and friends.” The partner denies it, “What are you talking about? I never said that.” “Well, yeah, you did.” “No, I didn’t. You’re always so dramatic. You always make things up. I swear you always like to live in chaos. You better be glad I stick with you; no one else would put up with this.” They will hide their partner’s keys or medications when the partner goes to look for them. The one that hid them will say, “Well, let me help you find them,” and comes out with them and says, “You would be lost without me. You can’t even remember where you left your keys the night before.” And then they would say, “You better be glad I stay with you.” We call this Crazy Making Behavior. Again, the harmful impact is pretty profound and lasting.
We also have cyber crimes. When a partner uses technology to harm their partner. We have all heard of “revenge porn.” It could be that explicit photos were willfully and consensually exchanged early in the relationship. So, depending on what that relationship looks like, when one partner threatens to break up or wants that divorce, the other partner will threaten to post those pictures on social media, throw them out to people in their contacts, or unauthorized posting of these photos on porn sites. Where those images are blasted on the internet, which we know is forever, the negative impact of that is also long-lasting. Or the unauthorized taking of photos and videos where the partners have no idea that photos or videos are being taken of them undressing, in the shower or in intimate acts. Changing passwords can be one. If they have shared family plans of cell phones, then that dominant aggressor turns off their partner’s phone, changes their password, and the security questions. Logs them out of their shared joint accounts, takes all the money from the joint account, and puts it into a personal account. They take out credit cards in their partner’s name, and the partner has no idea. They will charge up all their cards, so when the partner goes to leave, they say, “Good luck with that. You are in three collection agencies; you’re never going to qualify to get a place on your own.” and this is the first time the partner is ever hearing of it.
We then have spiritual harm. The most common thing we will see here is that spiritual harm typically occurs in a marriage relationship. Where both partners subscribe to the same religion or fate. One is the dominant aggressor, and the other says, “I want a divorce.” The dominant aggressor will use whatever holy book they subscribe to and say, “You can’t. You took a vow before God. We are a family, and you are going to go to hell. This is a death do us part situation.” Many survivors have said, “I can take on a human, but I can never take on God.” So, that is where we are going to see it predominantly. However, we can see it where religion is forced on a partner, or a partner isn’t allowed to practice their religion or fate freely.
And, of course, we have sexual harm. Again, we have the dominant aggressor; we are now talking about an exclusive relationship, whether a marriage where they live together or dating exclusively. Then one partner insists on sex acts that the other partner is uncomfortable with. The aggressor with says, “Where else am I going to go? If you don’t satisfy me, who should I go to?” So we consider coercion and ultimatums when it comes to acts of intimacy against a partner or sexual harm. But, of course, it can be as outrageous as rape. Predominantly, there will also be acts of physical violence present in that relationship. Again, the anchor is always power and control then that partner rapes the partner to let them know, “You don’t have control over anything in this relationship, not even of your own body.”
So there are many kinds of harm that we will see.
HOW MANY LATINOS DO YOU ALL CATER TO? IS THAT YOUR BIGGEST GROUP IN TERMS OF THOSE WHO COME TO THE SHELTER/CENTER?
STEPHENS: Yes. So, I have been with Laura’s House for four and a half, almost five years. I have observed in our client services that a large part of the population we serve is within that community. Especially in the shelter and transitional living as well.
HOW DID THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC CHANGE THE WAY SHELTERS OPERATE, ESPECIALLY LAURA’S HOUSE?
STEPHENS: 2020 changed things. We have a beautiful shelter, honestly. Those that come here typically bring children with them. We went from having multiple clients in a room, and they can share a room, and the rooms are large. To only have one client in a room. We also decreased the number of individuals serving in our shelters because of health and valid health concerns.
DID DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CASES INCREASE DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC?
STEPHENS: In March and April 2020, our domestic violence hotline calls increased by 65%. And we have a very robust hotline anyways, and people were stuck at home with their abusers. And to think about how difficult it must have been for them to make that call because their abuser is probably in the other room and the caller is in a closet having to whisper to make this hotline call. Or they would go for a walk and make the hotline call. So we saw a dramatic increase in hotline calls.
DO YOU THINK PEOPLE OF COLOR, SPECIFICALLY LATINOS ARE MORE PRONE TO EXPERIENCING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE? WHY?
STEPHENS: We have to go back to culture. Our education curriculum has a program called “Healthy Families.” It is a three-part series and when we do it with the Spanish-speaking population, the stories that we hear from the participants are so open and honest about what they are experiencing and kind of their experience with machismo and how that affects them. Kind of that thought process of male superiority and the only emotion allowed is anger. So we try and do this holistic thought approach, working with what is happening within that culture, the generational patterns that are happening and that have to be addressed, and then the therapeutic services about “How do we tap into other emotions other than just anger?” And then overcoming the stigma of, “Well, if I am sympathetic, and I do cry, and I do express my feelings of being overwhelmed and a lot is going on,” and being looked at as less than a man. You need to be strong and have the strength within the family. There is so much going on culturally within that community. In our Education Department, we see a difference between our conversations with the Spanish-speaking and the English-speaking communities. But the thing that is so near and dear to my heart is the authenticity that is happening in those workshops and people saying I need and help and saying, “I knew this was wrong; I don’t know how to stop it because now I have sons that are repeating it and doing it to their wives and they are raising their children the same. I see this pattern arising and how do we stop this?” The first thing we do to stop it is to begin that conversion.
HOW CAN ONE TELL IF SOMEONE IS IN NEED OF HELP FROM A DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SITUATION?
STEPHENS: We have a workshop called “How To Help.” We give warning indicators and things to look out for. For example, if you have family members or a good friend. If one of the partners is constantly criticizing the other partner, they will usually do it unjustly and if someone calls them out and they say, “I was just kidding! You should hear what they say to me.” Then that is the second thing you are going to look for. The second the other partner is called out for something, they diminish the behavior. But not only will that dominant aggressor diminish the behavior but the partner with aid them in the diminishing. They will say, “I take it seriously.” “Oh, they are in a bad mood because they might get laid off. They are nice to me; things have been tough lately.” So, when one or both parties are diminishing, the apparent bad behavior is going on. Also, the pattern of bruises or broken bones. If this is a family member, we know this person; we have a history with them. Suddenly, when they start dating this individual, they become a “klutz” by their definition. For example, “I was playing pickleball. I missed the ball. That’s why I have a black eye and a swollen cheek.” Or, “We went hiking and I took a tumble down the trail.” Again, we are not looking for isolated events; this will be an ongoing thing, so we are looking for a pattern of those bruises and broken bones. Or all of a sudden, they are missing work. Again, you know this persona and you know their work ethic and now, all of a sudden, they might get fired because they missed a lot of work. They are missing a lot of work because it takes a lot of bandwidth to survive this relationship. So it can be overwhelming, but also because they have to hide their injuries. They can’t go back until their injuries are healed. They may also be experiencing anxiety and depression. If now, all of a sudden, they are super anxious or super sad. This is not who they are; this is not their personality that would be a warning indicator. Lastly, fear. Fear is the number one indicator. Fear is tangible and you can feel it. If you are in the same room as them and someone says something to their partner and then actually, your loved one is the one that lashes out saying, “Mind your business! This is between the two of us! You always interfered in my life!” That can be an exaggerated response.
Well, a reason why that is, is because they will get a lashing because their family came to their aid. Wait until they are alone in the car with that partner or when they are home alone with that partner. “I can’t believe your family gangs up on me.” “We are never going to spend time with them again.” “It’s either me or them.” And all these ultimatums. They may be able to spend some time away from their partner. For example, en route shopping or going out for lunch, their phone is blowing up with text messaging and calling and they are afraid not to respond. They will get out of the activity early because “They need me at home.” And there is an underlying fear and those are things we have to keep an eye out for. If we are sure that we see correctly and feel correct.
Laura’s House has an hour-and-a-half workshop to help navigate that as an outsider looking in because what we don’t want to do is advise them. We don’t want to tell that person to break up. Believe it or not, we should not tell them they deserve better because this is a love relationship. Reinvertantly we are having them double down. They will defend the partner: “We are fine.” “You have always been judgemental.” “Relationships to me are not disposable.” “Sure, you’ve been divorced twice, but I hang in there. I take the higher road and am willing to forget it.” And we cement to them more because they are on the defense. So, we have to navigate it carefully and there are ways to do it and very practical ways.
WHAT RESOURCES CAN ONE USE TO HELP THEMSELVES OR SOMEONE THEY KNOW?
STEPHENS: I think everyone should have a domestic violence number in their contacts, most preferably a local agency because that is going to be the first advice, again not coming in as an expert but saying, “I’ve heard about this and I am happy to help you while you make that phone call.” I know our agency does and I think with every single domestic violence agency, you can not call on behalf of someone. That person in that relationship has to be the one to make that phone call. We get a few calls where someone wants us to reach out to their daughter, son, niece, nephew, and even mothers. They will say, “They are in an abusive relationship and need help. I need you to call them.” That’s not how it works. That person has to be in a position where they recognize it and want help. So, give them that phone number and sit with them. Give the support, but only as much support as you can provide. If you can be that 3 a.m. friend, then offer that to them. If you can’t be that friend and have to turn off your phone at a particular time, then do not offer the support of a 3 a.m. phone call. You must tell your friend or family member to turn your phone off at a particular time. But let them know, “If you ever need me between these hours or even beyond that, then let me know so I can keep my phone on for you.” So, those conversations of “What do you need from me now?” You have to kick into empathy quickly. Empathy is void of judgment and condensation. All empathy does is recognize there are a lot of barriers between that person and exiting that relationship and recognizing those barriers and not judging them and then offering to walk alongside them while supporting the decision they make, even if it is one you don’t think is in their best interest because this is their journey. Their power has been taken from them by their partner and the best that we can give them is their power back in their choices. You have to say and talk about, “I will support your choices. I won’t always like the choice but recognize that you are the one making a choice.”