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Hola es su centro para mantenerse informado, compartir ideas y conectarse con recursos. (Hola is your hub to stay informed, share ideas, and connect with resources in northern Illinois.)

Latina providers step in to support Spanish speaking survivors at gender violence crisis centers

Sandy Morales, 2023.
Maria Gardner Lara
Sandy Morales, 2023.

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Domestic violence affects all communities, crossing racial, economic and social lines. As the Latino population in northern Illinois grows, some Spanish-speaking and immigrant communities face language and cultural barriers to accessing care.

At domestic violence crisis centers, it’s often Latina staff members who are front and center when the organization engage with survivors in the Latino community.

Sandy Morales is a volunteer coordinator at Safe Passage Inc., the crisis center for survivors of gender violence in DeKalb.

Her job entails recruiting volunteers and guiding them through the 60-hour domestic violence and sexual assault crisis intervention training.

Outside of her role, she steps in occasionally to fill a gap for Spanish-speaking staff at the center.

Morales said when she started two years ago there were only two bilingual, bicultural staff members. Today there are six, but she said that’s not always enough.

“There are a few of us here that speak Spanish or that are bilingual,” Morales said. “But it's really hard for us to meet the demand sometimes of the people seeking services that don't really speak English.”

Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act organizations that receive federal funding are required to dedicate enough resources so that language is not an obstacle for survivors to receive services.

That includes Safe Passage.

For Morales that means that she's still involved in the legal department, where she used to be a legal advocate. She wasn’t replaced with another bilingual Latina advocate and her language skills there are still in demand.

“I'm still taking a lot of those clients,” she said. “All my old clients are Spanish speaking, I'm still following up with them, I'm still going to court with them. I'm still going to lawyer offices with them. So, I'm still dipping my foot over there.”

And Morales said she’s happy to do it. She said her parents made a lot of sacrifices to come to the U.S. She says giving back to the community is her way of repaying them.

“To be able to help my community is the best,” she said.

In Rockford, Tania Popoca is a counselor at Remedies Renewing Lives, a crisis center serving Winnebago and Boone Counties.

Popoca has been with the agency for four years. She’s seen an increase in Spanish-speaking staff hires but says there's a need for more.

She notices that Latina clients have an automatic connection with Latina advocates.

“Whether it's called culture, whether it's feeling comfortable speaking in their own language,” Popoca said, “just understanding and knowing their background, it makes a big difference.”

Popoca said making those connections with survivors helps to build trust.

And that’s key to helping survivors overcome their fear and be open to receiving services -- like a stay in an emergency shelter.

“Coming into a shelter can be scary sometimes," she said. “But for them to understand, like, we have certain policies, that we're here to protect them, we're safe for them.”

Popoca said she cares about helping others, but also creates boundaries to manage the requests for her bilingual skills.

“Because if not,” Popoca said, “like, it could be so easy for somebody to say, like, ‘Oh, I have a Spanish-speaking client. Here you go.’”

She said in some instances it’s about reminding staff of the language line. Staff can call to connect with a translator.

And yet, she said, if a Spanish speaking client is in crisis, she’ll get involved.

“The biggest solution would be for another Spanish-speaking employee to talk to her or him,” she said, “just because if a client is upset, they're not going to wait for the interpreter to get on the line.”

National effort

As senior director of training at Esperanza United, Paula Gomez Stordy helps organizations provide better services to the Latino community. Esperanza United is a federally designated resource center assisting crisis centers nationwide improve their outreach and care to the Latino Community.

She primarily helps crisis centers implement a language access plan, so that language is not a barrier to care, as required under the Civil Rights Act.

That may require organizations to hire more bilingual, bicultural staff and adopt the use of a language line.

“And so, you might have this important information for survivors, and with great advocates, and with great staff,” she said, “and yet, if they don't speak a language or don't understand cultural differences, many individuals are not being supported. They're not receiving services.”

She said having the right staff helps survivors, especially for the immigrant community whose circumstances may differ from other groups.

"So, they're feeling powerless in their relationship,” she said. “They're also feeling powerless because they're newly arrived to the country, not understanding the language, not understanding systems, navigating systems.”

Despite the various obstacles they face, Gomez Stordy said survivors muster a lot of courage to overcome the isolation and speak out.

“Survivors,” she said, “are incredibly resilient, and creative.”

That makes it even more important that, when they do come forward, there's someone who understands their culture, and their language.

Stordy said Esperanza United is awarding nearly $12 million in grant funding over the next several years to support Latino-centered organizations to better serve survivors of gender violence.

For information on domestic violence services, call the national domestic violence hotline at 800-799-7233.

This story is part of “More than Words,” a Report for America initiative that brought together newsrooms covering Latino communities in eight states, with the support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, to examine the impact of language barriers on the social, economic and educational advancement of Latinos and the local efforts to close this gap.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.