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Every day, Haven Hills staff sees the devastating impact of Domestic Violence on the faces of the families that come to us for help; they are suffering both emotionally and physically. To offer the help that these families require, we often must consider the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the clients we are serving. A lack of understanding of a culturally different client’s values and motivations, or the assumption that they are the same as one’s own, can be a significant barrier. A ‘one size fits all’ approach to supporting trauma is not effective.
For example, many of our clients were brought up to neither share confidences nor admit emotional pain to outsiders. The personal disclosure and behavioral changes that counselors typically suggest can often be embarrassing and totally unimaginable to clients who would rather “handle their own business” than seek outside help from a stranger.
“Understanding the complexities of a person’s background and individual situation makes a huge difference in successfully assisting them in treating their trauma and achieve self-esteem,” explained Iliana Tavera, Haven Hills Executive Director. “We understand that beliefs and traditions are powerful forces in a person’s life and that providing culturally sensitive care is essential to supporting domestic violence survivors from diverse cultural backgrounds”.
Clients like Cheri, a woman in her 30s who immigrated to the U.S. in 2003 from Bangladesh in 2003 as part of an arranged marriage agreement. Initially confronted with her husband’s verbal abuse, the situation escalated after a year to slapping, pulling hair, kicking and choking her when he was displeased. The verbal abuse intensified as he criticized her to the children, called her a prostitute and threatened to cut her throat.
Cheri tried to leave many times, but she was financially dependent on her spouse and did not have friends or family in this country. After years of abuse, Cheri finally called the police after a particularly violent episode, and her husband was arrested in 2015. After his release, he left the country and returned to his home country.
That year, Cheri began the difficult journey toward independence with the help of social services and the support of the Haven Hills Outreach Program. Learning to do everything on her own was very hard, but with the aid of Haven Hills’ highly trained counselors she has grown in confidence and has become self-sufficient. Ultimately, Cheri was accepted into a nursing program and graduated in 2017.
Cultural and geographic isolation worsened by financial dependence on a spouse, can be devastating obstacles to overcome. Take for instance Amalia a middle-aged Muslim woman whose marriage to a man 25 years her senior was arranged by her parents when she was only 18.
Her husband had always been emotionally distant and controlling of the finances, but in recent years he became increasingly abusive. He prevented her from working or getting a college education, and he kept her on a weekly allowance of $25.00, requiring her to account for every penny. His criticism and blame extended to belittling her to their grown sons and claiming she was crazy. On numerous occasions, he tried to force her to take unknown pills, despite being told by a psychiatrist, following an examination, that she did not need medication.
Amalia found Haven Hills through an internet search in January 2016. At that time, she was wondering what she could do to make her husband change. Since coming to Haven Hills and attending support groups led by counselors specially trained in domestic violence, her self-esteem has improved. Amalia realized she only has the power to change herself, and she has started to work towards self-sufficiency and divorce.
She recently completed a class to become a real estate agent. In addition, Haven Hills advocated for her to be a part of Pepperdine’s Microenterprise Program to develop the skills to become an entrepreneur. Amalia was recently accepted into the Pepperdine program and hopes to use the skills she learns there to develop a website and become financially independent.
Joey’s Survivor Story
Men don’t suffer from domestic violence, right? Wrong. In the United States alone, one in four men experiences domestic violence. Often, men struggle to get help for domestic violence out of fear of not being believed. They also fear being perceived as less masculine. When men access services, they tend to minimize the abuse and try to avoid the social stigma that comes with their inability to protect themselves. Let’s break down male domestic violence with a few figures.
In other words, domestic violence among male survivors is a huge problem that often goes unreported. Although most shelters aid male survivors, most have only limited units that can accommodate them. Therefore, many male survivors of domestic violence do not receive the support they need. That’s not the case with Haven Hills, though.
We can accommodate survivors, regardless of their gender, since most of our units are single units. More and more male survivors are coming forward to seek help and, luckily, organizations like Haven Hills are available to help them rebuild their lives with shelter and supportive services. Joey, for example, entered our crisis shelter program a few years back.
At first, Joey resisted seeking help because his abuser would tell him that no one would believe him and that they would say Joey was the aggressor because he was male. He also viewed his sexual orientation as a barrier that prevented him from seeking the domestic violence support services he needed.
Once he entered our crisis program, Joey attended a support group and learned how to identify signs of an abusive relationship correctly. He also started individual counseling and discovered not to be ashamed of being a male domestic violence survivor. His son also benefited by receiving tutoring services through our children’s program.
When I called Joey to confirm his acceptance into our transitional program, he cried. This 18-month program provides Joey with no-cost temporary housing as he continues to stabilize his life and plan for the future, providing him with tools to establish credit, develop a budget, find a permanent place to live, and develop a safety plan.
Joey regularly calls to express how thankful he is for all the supportive services we’ve provided him. For years, he stayed in an abusive relationship because he thought there was no help for him and his son. Unfortunately, that may also be the case for an unknown number of male survivors who experience domestic violence but are too afraid or ashamed to seek help.
Joey’s story is a powerful reminder of the importance of keeping our services available to all survivors of domestic violence. No one deserves to suffer domestic violence, and Haven Hills is here to help people of every gender break the cycle of abuse.
Marissa Lemus is the Residential Program Manager for Haven Hills. In this role, she provides services and manages the crisis shelter, transitional shelter, crisis line programs, facility, and staff. Marissa’s professional and educational background is in clinical neuropsychology, which allows her to support both staff and clients holistically. She and her team meet weekly for client case consultations that enable survivors to receive trauma-informed care. Marissa’s main objective is to develop programs that instill self-sufficiency, resiliency, and community within residential clients.
Iliana’s Survivor Story
My earliest childhood memory — I must have been three or four years old — is of my parents fighting. I’m sitting on the couch in the dark, and I hear them arguing in the next room. Arguing is putting it lightly, though, as I can still hear my mother being hit and screaming in pain. I was scared, confused, and crying. Every time someone asks me why I choose to be the executive director of a domestic violence organization, I go back to that memory.
Of course, it’s not a memory that I always share with others. It took me two years in this position before I could even utter the words “because my mother is a survivor.” It still feels raw to say it, acknowledging the trauma that my brothers and I experienced in the place where we should have been the safest. But, I say it because I choose not to keep secrets like that anymore.
Growing up, I never told anyone. I learned to pretend that everything was okay, which was not a difficult thing to do, given that my father isolated us from family and neighbors. He also kept our friends at arm’s length and never allowed us to have play dates or sleepovers. To this day, it’s hard to let people into my inner sanctum. It can be terrifying to think about inviting others into my home.
Now, looking back at my childhood, I’m surprised no one ever guessed. I exhibited the textbook symptoms of a child who has witnessed domestic violence. I had debilitating headaches to the point that my pediatrician feared that I had a brain tumor and ordered an MRI. Moreover, I was always anxious, depressed, quick to anger, and on guard. So, I kept to myself and had trouble making friends. My brothers also exhibited physical symptoms, including severe nosebleeds and stomach aches. Thankfully, though, we skirted many of the other adverse effects domestic violence often has on children:
I decided to take this job because, as a childhood survivor of domestic violence, I saw Haven Hills as an opportunity to help other child survivors overcome the effects of their trauma. I wanted to make sure that this organization had the financial and staffing resources to provide others with what I lacked as a child.
We invest a great deal into the children that come to our shelters and attend our programs to ensure that we stop the intergenerational cycle of abuse before it’s replicated in the next generation. That’s because we believe the most important thing that we can provide a young person to counteract the devastating effects of domestic violence is a safe, caring environment with staff available to help them work through their trauma.
Although children may never forget the trauma they experienced, they can learn what it means to have healthy relationships and positively manage their emotions. And the sooner we offer that intervention, the easier it becomes for them to develop into healthy adults. I know that the other staff and I at Haven Hills take that responsibility very seriously.
My story and that of my brothers’ has a happy ending. We’re mostly well-adjusted individuals with caring partners and have built homes that are free of the trauma we experienced as children. We were lucky to find our way. My hope now is that Haven Hills staff can help others find their way, too.
Iliana Tavera was named Executive Director of Haven Hills, Inc. in 2015. At Haven Hills, Iliana is responsible for managing one of the largest domestic violence providers in Los Angeles County. She has 25 years of experience in nonprofit management, fundraising, operations, and a strong track record of developing successful collaborations among the private sector, nonprofits, and community partners.
Please visit this webpage from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services for more information on the effects of domestic violence on children.