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After hurricane María, a surge in domestic violence – and demands for change

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The everyday stresses after a disaster like the Category 4 hurricane can exacerbate abuse. Puerto Rico wasn't ready to handle a flood of women and families looking for help, their advocates say, but there are lessons to learn from last fall's failure.

Domestic violence survivor G. does her laundry at a women's shelter in Puerto Rico on March 13, 2018. The shelter focuses on transitional housing for women and children trying to get back on their feet.
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When Catherine lost power after hurricane María last September, she feared for her life.

For days she and her family spent up to eight hours waiting in the scorching sun ­– and sometimes the rain – to buy ice to keep their food from spoiling or gas to run their generator. Often, there was nothing left to buy. That stress, combined with lost work and essential income in María’s wake, meant that the emotional and sexual abuse long doled out by her husband only got worse after the storm, she says.

“We used to argue once a week, maybe,” says Catherine, sitting in an emergency women’s shelter where she and her child have been living for the past five months. “After María, he was exploding [at me] three, four times a week.”

When the courthouse near her home opened up three weeks after the storm, she went. She got a restraining order, a police escort home to retrieve some essentials, and was taken to a safe house.

Catherine isn’t alone. Domestic violence often spikes after natural disasters, when basic necessities become hard to find, and systems of protections like law enforcement break down. Preexisting challenges in Puerto Rico – from an overburdened criminal justice system to a financial crisis that made emergency response protocols nearly nonexistent – may have exacerbated the situation here, experts say. But those working with victims are hopeful that the government’s lack of preparations for María will leave the island better poised to prevent, and respond to, intimate partner violence in emergency settings going forward.

“The storms slammed everything, and now we see things we could not see before,” says William Ramirez, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Puerto Rico. “Poverty, lack of health care, lack of empowerment, domestic abuse. They’ve been here, but they haven’t always been this visible.”

Shelter employees and researchers report a sharp uptick in domestic violence following the destruction of hurricanes Irma and María last fall. There were roughly 1,747 calls to 911 for domestic abuse between Sept. 20 and the end of November, according to Jodie Roure, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who studies domestic violence in Puerto Rico.

“That’s an astronomical number,” she says. Calls roughly quadrupled between September and November, according to data she’s compiled. And that’s likely just a fraction of the number of actual incidents post-María, she says, given that electricity, phone lines, and cell service were wiped out and courts were shut down across the island for weeks.

“The state wasn’t checking on domestic violence shelters. Employees were basically living with the women they serve, trying to protect them without any kind of support,” says Dr. Roure. “In the [emergency evacuation] shelters, there were no protocols,” such as for how to keep aggressors away from victims. “I am concerned. No one was trained and the lack of planning is unconscionable.”

But with the 2018 hurricane season right around the corner, many here say they’re trying to view last year’s disaster as a learning opportunity.

“We were isolated before. Now, after living through the same situation, there’s a lot more sharing,” between domestic violence shelters, says Lisdel Flores Barger, the director of Hogar Ruth, an emergency shelter that also provides transitional housing.

“María was all bad,” she says. “But it’s now giving us the space for conversation and recommendations … on how we can have more concrete plans in the future.”

Ms. Salgado tutors the children of domestic violence survivors at a women's shelter on March 13, 2018 in Puerto Rico. The shelter has been operating here for more than three decades.
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'A double victimization'

There are typically around 21 women, children, and adolescent girls staying at the shelter Hogar Ruth, which has been in operation for more than three decades. Following María, that jumped to roughly 50 people sleeping in the bunk-bed-filled rooms – and the common areas – each night. Women and children were showing up at their door, and in some cases, security guards working at courts that weren’t yet up and running brought domestic violence victims there directly.

“There’s a double victimization that happens after a disaster” like María, says Ms. Flores. “There’s an increased vulnerability to abuse when you can’t find basic resources, but also there are more reasons to think staying in an abusive relationship is the ‘best’ option,” she says, noting that after losing a home and a job, the idea of losing a partner can be too much for some individuals. It can be a deadly decision.

Hogar Ruth had a protocol in place for natural disasters, “but no one could have imagined a storm like this,” says Flores. Her team had enough food and water stored to last them for six weeks, but they weren’t prepared for how long the island’s communication system was wiped out, or for the months-long power outage.

“Getting diesel was impossible, and the government attention – it just wasn’t there,” she says.

When government employees did show up, they brought food and water. But, “we didn’t need that,” she says. “We had pregnant women, kids with asthma; the biggest crisis for us was how to maintain operations and the physical and mental health of our participants. But there was no process in place [for the government] to communicate with us during and after the storm.”

That was particularly scary given the work they do. “If an aggressor found us, we had no one to call,” Flores says. 

(The Monitor's calls and emails to the women’s special prosecutor’s office and family services department were not returned.)

Flores is heartened that the government appears willing to hear from her and other shelter directors across the island now, trying to learn from this disaster. But the biggest benefit has been connecting with other groups working with the same population, she says.

“We are now sitting down and trying to pinpoint who should be in charge of what,” Flores says, so that shelters can “figure out a way to respond uniformly.” Through those conversations, she says the groups are turning complaints into recommendations for how various levels of government can respond better down the road.

Officials “should designate an agency...to know our needs and to bring us what we need in an emergency,” says Sandra Cruz Ramirez, who runs a shelter for domestic violence survivors over age 62. “But above all, we want good protocols in place. For example, centers for children, just like centers for domestic violence victims, should have a priority to have their electricity repaired first,” she says, noting that a large mall in San Juan, the capital, got power long before most domestic violence shelters.

Building bridges

Across the island, in a basement room at Hogar Nueva Mujer, another organization working with victims of domestic violence, a washing machine is buzzing. Jugs of detergent and fabric softener flank informational posters about domestic violence, and a sign lays out the laundry-room rules: first come, first served, and only two washing machines per person.

A young woman is filling a machine with her belongings, while a Dora the Explorer blanket hangs to dry on a nearby laundry line.

“María surprised me,” says G., whose caseworker sent her to this shelter just a few days ago, roughly six months after María battered Puerto Rico. “The damage to my home wasn’t that big, but the overall experience brought up new challenges, like no potable water or electricity, or showing up at the supermarket and finding it empty. Not being able to take money out of the bank,” she says, ticking off the stressors that started layering upon her family and community.

She’s suffered domestic violence in the past. “María kicked up old problems,” she says of her arrival at the shelter.

Several months ago, G. wouldn’t have found herself alone in this laundry room.

“We work with survivors of domestic violence, but after María that aspect of our work wasn’t our sole focus,” says Vilmarie Rivera Sierra, the director of Hogar Nueva Mujer, explaining that their entire community was in survival mode. “It became about the basics, and how can we best serve our entire community,” in addition to the more than 40 women and families we provide direct services to, she says.

Laundry was an answer.

Hogar Nueva Mujer was one of the few buildings in their neighborhood with a generator after the storm. Because nearly all of the women they work with live off site, the shelter decided it was safe to open up their doors to the community. People were invited to come charge their telephones and wash their clothes, a small but important gesture in helping regain a sense of humanity and normalcy after the storm, says Ms. Rivera.

“People came to wash their clothes and ended up getting services from us,” says Rivera. “Psychological services, therapy sessions for kids, women experiencing domestic violence that learned about their options.” 

Vilmarie Rivera Sierra, the director of a women's shelter for domestic violence survivors, photographed on March 13, 2018 in Puerto Rico. Ms. Rivera says she’s concerned with how the government responded to hurricane María, "But I have hope."
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Even before the storm, domestic violence was a difficult crime to track and serve. It’s often dismissed as a private, family matter. In 2011, the US Justice Department published a scathing report on Puerto Rico’s 17,000-strong police force, noting “troubling evidence” that the police repeatedly failed to investigate domestic violence and sex crimes, and that allegations of domestic violence against officers were overlooked.

A 10-year police reform, passed in 2013, is meant to include better training for law enforcement in dealing with domestic violence. But, says Mr. Ramirez from the ACLU, the funding isn’t there to follow through. Furthermore, in the wake of María, police have participated in an informal strike, calling in sick due to a lack of overtime pay for the extremely long days police put in following the storm.

“Domestic violence requires money for training, education, police follow-up,” he says. “We’re not seeing that.”

Rivera says she’s frustrated and concerned with the response to María.

“But I have hope. I saw some solutions,” she says.

“In our case, as an organization, the positive out of all of this has been that we’ve gotten closer to our community. We’ve developed a new voice and we’re getting it out, reaching more victims,” she says.

“My hope is that we can evaluate what shelters did well and what went badly and what we lacked. The government couldn’t react adequately [to domestic violence] after María. But we could.”

Domestic violence survivors’ last names, and shelters’ locations, have been omitted for their safety. 

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