Underground Justice

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Before 29-year-old Anjelita Bangali and her family immigrated from Guyana to the Bronx two years ago, she went to the beach with her husband and young daughters to lay hibiscus blossoms, homemade delicacies and statues of gods on the sand. The Hindu good luck rite was pristine and vibrant, but in the United States, Bangali’s luck turned messy and fatal. Shortly after arriving, she began an affair with a man–also Guyanese–who started threatening to kill her. He succeeded late last summer, by slitting her throat, before taking his own life. Bangali’s children wailed, her husband wept, the tabloids screamed, and there was another rite: her funeral.

The murder is part of a doubly disturbing set of statistics. They indicate that women are more likely to be killed in domestic violence incidents if, like Bangali, they’re immigrants. Between 1995 and 2002, according to a recent city health department study, women from other countries comprised 51 percent of what criminologists call “intimate-partner female homicides” in New York City. Yet only about 40 percent of the city’s women are foreign born.

The murderers are mostly current and former husbands and lovers–who are also more likely to batter women even when they don’t go so far as to kill them. In New York last year, the police received some 240,000 reports of domestic violence.

Once a victim calls the city’s domestic-violence hotline, a huge criminal-justice apparatus revs up. During the past few years, police have been making arrests in about 1 in 10 cases reported. In criminal court, these are prosecuted by special domestic-violence units in the boroughs’ DA offices. Even when perpetrators aren’t around to arrest–many have fled the home by the time the cops arrive–victims can file restraining orders, mandating that their abusers keep a distance. In October, to make all this easier, Mayor Bloomberg and Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes announced a new, one-stop center, financed by the U.S. Justice Department. Brooklyn victims who call the city’s domestic-abuse hotline or the police will soon be able to meet with a prosecutor, file for an order of protection and get legal advice, all in the same place.

But the convenience means nothing to people like Anjelita Bangali. Most domestic-violence victims never call 911 or official hotlines, and immigrants are even less likely to contact the authorities or seek a restraining order. They’re more prone to remain with their abusers. So, increasingly, domestic-violence community organizations are circumventing the legal system entirely. They’re crafting a parallel universe, with its own strategies for addressing and minimizing domestic violence. And they are prepared to bypass police and prosecutors when they think it’s necessary.

CONNECT is one of these organizations. With about half its $2 million annual budget covered by the City Council and half by the federal government, CONNECT, formerly the Family Violence Project of the Urban Justice Center, works with dozens of organizations in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx’s Highbridge section. The group provides training, public presentations and flyers to social workers, church leaders and other professionals in close contact with neighborhood women. CONNECT also helps community groups develop multicultural, multilingual materials and distribute them at places women frequent every day, like WIC offices, schools, braiding salons, “even laundromats and bakeries,” says Executive Director Alisa Del Tufo.

CONNECT also runs therapy and reeducation groups for male batterers–groups that are still frowned on by many activists, who think abusers should simply be locked up. The point of all the work, Del Tufo says, is to “make domestic violence unacceptable–to change the culture of entire communities.”

Immigrant women have many reasons for staying mum and staying put. Some are cultural. “In Asian countries,” says Angela Lee, associate director of the New York Asian Women’s Center, “it’s considered shameful to disclose abuse to other people.” Newcomers from the former Soviet Union are loath to report because “in those countries you don’t go to the authorities about anything,” adds Nechama Wolfson of Shalom Task Force, which runs a domestic violence hotline for Jews.

Poverty and economics also play a big part. “She’s not fluent in English and she’s financially dependent on the husband or boyfriend,” says Jean Debrosse, a social worker at Flatbush Haitian Center, in Brooklyn, who works mostly with Caribbean immigrants. “She says to herself, ‘He’s feeding me and the kids. If I leave him, how am I going to survive?’”

Then there’s immigration papers. “What if you’re undocumented?” says Del Tufo, a longtime domestic violence activist. “You worry that if you report abuse, you or someone else in the family could get deported.” And, documented or not, says Del Tufo, “many women are reluctant to have their husbands arrested because that contradicts the traditional values of their countries.”

The reluctance is shared by many native-born minority women, says Darlene Post, a Safe Horizon social worker at Lehman High School in the Bronx. “African-Americans and Latinas: Even when they’re abused, a lot know the reality of the prison system for men of color. They ask, ‘Do I want to send my man there?’”

A generation ago, the women’s movement didn’t just bring domestic violence out of the shadows; it also pressed for mandatory arrest and prosecution of abusers. The effort was astoundingly successful. In New York and elsewhere today, when police answer a domestic violence call involving a felony, they must make an arrest–even if the victim doesn’t want that. If the case is prosecuted, she’s called to testify against her husband or lover. If she balks, she can be subpoenaed, or even held in contempt.

Activists have become increasingly troubled by a growing sense of disconnection between what women want and what the criminal justice system offers them, says Adelita Medina, director of the New York–based National Latino Alliance for the Elimination of Domestic Violence (better known as Alianza). So organizations nationwide, including many in New York, have begun offering alternative ways of getting help.

“The first thing we do is try to ensure their safety,” says Antonia Clemente. Her Brooklyn-based organization, Trinity Healing Center, counsels mostly undocumented Mexican victims of domestic violence. When a woman continues to live with her abuser, workers at organizations like Trinity help her make a “safety plan.” It can be as simple as going to another room if her partner comes home drunk and primed for violence. Or it can marshal friends, children, and ploys straight out of a spy novel.

“We ask where she’d go if she needed to get away fast,” says Gemelyn Philogene of Dwa Fanm, a Brooklyn organization whose name is Haitian Creole for “women’s rights.” “We tell her to identify someone who wouldn’t tell the abuser where she went, and give that person money and a set of keys.” Other groups teach prearranged signals so neighbors will know if she needs help but can’t say so directly because her partner is terrorizing her. “Things like putting the blinds a certain way or giving a wink,” says Clemente. “The children learn a code,” Philogene explains. “‘Black shoe,’ for instance. When they hear that it means ‘Get the hell out of here, now–don’t even stop to take clothes!’”

Advice like this is reinforced in support groups. Manhattan-based Sakhi for South Asian Women, for instance–whose name means “woman friend” in several South Asian languages–serves immigrants from countries like India, Pakistan and Guyana (though Guyana is in South America, many of its population are ethnic Indians). Kinship ties are extremely important to South Asians, says Sakhi director Kinship ties are extremely important to South Asians, says Sakhi director Purvi Shah. So the group’s volunteers don’t demand that a woman leave her abuser.

Instead, they try to move her toward financial and emotional independence. Participating in Sakhi support groups combats feelings of shame and isolation, and a woman is welcome to attend for many months if need be, even years. There she can learn from women who’ve used the criminal justice system and profited from it. She can get information about government assistance like food stamps and public housing, which may be available if she splits from her partner. To prepare for a job, she can take Sakhi-sponsored classes in English and computers. And if she’s undocumented or a temporary resident prohibited from working, she can be referred to an immigration attorney who might be able to upgrade her status.

The federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is extraordinarily generous to immigrant victims of domestic violence who are married and depend on their permanent resident or U.S. citizen spouses to sponsor changes to their status. VAWA lets them to file on their own for a green card, eliminating the need to be sponsored by an abusive spouse.

VAWA also makes it unnecessary to call the police in order to convince officials that abuse really happened. “You can just file your own affidavit with the immigration authorities, or give them affidavits from witnesses,” says Cyrus Mehta, a local immigration attorney and adviser to Sakhi. VAWA, some activists say, has made the process so easy that the first call many immigrant domestic violence victims make is not to 911 or a hotline but to a lawyer.

But a lot still needs changing. Anjelita Bangali apparently never heard of VAWA, or for that matter CONNECT, Sakhi or any other group that might have helped her. Her boyfriend, Dhanraj Hamashwar, “was threatening to chop her up,” says Bangali’s 11-year-old daughter, Normela. She and her sister Ishwanie, 9, lived with their mother after she moved in with Hamashwar. Despite his threats, police have no record of ever getting a call about him from Bangali. Her neighbor and best friend, Shanti Jainaraim, says Bangali “always said things were going well. But she’d have tears in her eyes.”

Bangali was murdered days after telling Hamashwar she planned to leave him. That period, according to experts, is the most dangerous time for a domestic violence victim. “I was ready to forgive her and wish she’d been able to get counseling,” says her husband, Basdeu Bangali. “But we didn’t know how to find it. We were new to this country.”