In Harlem: Battered Women Struggle For Resources

In the northern tip of Manhattan, a predominantly Hispanic immigrant population of battered women struggles to escape abusive relationships. Cultural and language barriers, lacking resources, fear of deportation and a lack of a center prevents them from getting help.

According to the New York City Government office, Manhattan has seen a 29 percent increase in family related homicide, the largest increase since 2008, compared to citywide decrease of 13 percent. Yet unlike Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx, which have had Family Justice Centers (FJC’s) for several years (Brooklyn’s was set up in 2005), Manhattan is still behind on having one go-to place for battered women seeking help.

Since taking office in January 2010, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance has repeatedly acknowledged that Northern Manhattan needs a Family Justice Center (FJC). But so far, the Northern Manhattan DA’s office still functions as it did in 1987, when it was created without a specialized FJC.

According to Sarah Banda, director of the Domestic Violence Project at the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation (NMIC), DA offices can be intimidating. “The lack of a Family Justice Center in our community is a problem,” she says. “We have a majority of immigrants and they face many obstacles to leave an abusive relationship. They don’t know the laws, or how to leave.”

Amairis Peña- Chavez, deputy director of Brooklyn’s Family Justice Center (FJC) says every borough should have one. “Our success lies in the cooperation with over 20 different agencies—That way victims don’t have to go to different places to look for housing, counseling and legal aid,” she says, “because many agencies often work against each other.”

For comprehensive and easy-access services, battered women in Northern Manhattan are turning to small organizations like the Violence Intervention Program (VIP) for counseling, shelter and financial assistance.

Margarita Martinez, a middle aged woman with colorful fingernails and a friendly smile escaped her abusive relationship thanks to the VIP’s shelter program. Martinez says the problem of domestic violence in Harlem is aggravated by “a lack of preparation by Hispanic immigrants.” As a Mexican immigrant herself, now living in East Harlem, she says that coming from small villages in Latin America many are unaware of what their new life in the U.S will look like.

Martinez now reaches out to battered mothers through the VIP. “A mother once told me that her husband touched her children’s genitals and told them some day a man was going to come and ‘take’ them. He hit her and she wanted to leave. But she had paid for the house and had little money, which made it difficult.”

Studies confirm that undocumented people have more difficulty getting out of an abusive relationship. Manhattan clinical worker Peter Severino says that on average, it takes around six attempts for those women to leave permanently. As for non-immigrants, he says they “have an easier time because of better resources.”

To get help with resources, immigrant women are seeking help through small community based organizations. Danielle Salgado, domestic violence staff attorney at NMIC fills an essential gap in the community by providing legal aid to undocumented victims. “They often call to ask if they need papers to get help. But in fact, victims of any violent crime can apply for a visa through a program called ‘Uvisa’ if they file a criminal report. It gives them the opportunity to become legal. They can get a work permit, and eventually even a green card.”


According to NMIC for many immigrant women leaving their abuser means losing their community, their job, and sometimes even their family. When an abuser is imprisoned or deported victims often lose an important source of income. That economic dependence, says Salgado, often prevents a case from being taken to a criminal court.

Yet even when resources are available, getting out of an abusive relationship is often a dangerous step. Originally from Spain, VIP’s executive director Cecilia Gaston has a college education and speaks five languages. She survived an abusive marriage of 20 years and lost custody of her children after leaving.

“My husband accused me of stealing from him,” she said. “He knew that my passport would be taken away and I couldn’t leave.” Gaston says the moment she escaped her abusive relationship was the most fearful moment of her marriage. “Most deaths occur when women leave the relationship. People underestimate that danger,” she says.

While battered women in Harlem trying to leave their husbands scramble for resources to escape permanently and unharmed, Amairis Peña- Chavez, says more and more immigrant victims are realizing that they don’t have to fear to seek help because of their legal status.

About Loretta van der Horst