Last week Congress voted to approve the reauthorization of the Violence
Against Women Act after letting it lapse in 2011.
Funded at nearly $660 million a year for the next five years, the VAWA funds programs to help prosecute sexual assault and domestic abuse cases.
Locally, the measure will secure nearly $30,000 in funding for Citizens Against Spouse Abuse Inc., which pays for a salary for its only full-time bilingual outreach coordinator, Giselle Cruzdebaeza.
"Giselle has 127 clients, most of whom only speak Spanish," said CASA Executive Director Lori Haney. "For many of those clients, Giselle is CASA. Normally a victim who uses our services would have contact with two or three of our workers through the different programs we offer. But since Giselle is our only full-time bilingual coordinator, she handles everything for them."
Haney said Cruzdebaeza's position was funded through this year, but if VAWA hadn't been reauthorized, CASA would have had to severely restrict its Spanish-language services and rely on volunteers rather than a paid staff person.
"I was honestly relieved when Congress passed VAWA," Haney said.
Approved twice since its introduction in 1994, the fight over the current VAWA bill started last year after the U.S. House of Representatives voted against a Senate version of the bill that would allow lesbians, gays, immigrants and Native American women equal access to the VAWA programs. According to the Associated Press, before the November elections the House introduced a bill that didn't "include the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and watered down a Senate provision allowing tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians who attack their Indian partners on tribal lands."
After the White House, women's groups, Democrats and some Republicans fought against the House version of the bill, House Speaker John Boehner allowed a vote on the Senate version, which passed 286-138. Among those who voted "no" was Rep. Vicky Hartzler, who voted for the House version of the bill but not the full Senate version.
Haney said while the VAWA grant makes up only 6 percent of CASA's overall budget, nearly all of that money goes toward Cruzdebaeza's salary and benefits, as well as her CASA-issued cellphone that gives Spanish-speaking women 24-hour a day access to CASA programs.
"I receive 40 to 50 calls a day," Cruzdebaeza said, "but I think that should be higher. I know there are Spanish-speaking women in this community who are not getting the help they need."
One of the biggest barriers, both Cruzdebaeza and Haney said, is the cultural difference between Hispanics and white women.
"Many of these women are from the mountains, they've married very young -- at 14 or 15 -- and think abuse is normal," Cruzdebaeza said. "There is no such thing as divorce. If a woman goes to her family and says, 'My husband is beating me,' a lot of times the family won't do anything. They'll say, 'Go back to your husband. That's just how it is.' "
These women also face a major language barrier and, if they come to the country illegally, may be more worried about deportation than the abuse they're experiencing, she added.
Abusers who are here legally or are U.S. citizens will sometimes threaten these women with deportation and, if their children have been born in the U.S., a complete cutoff from family.
"Building trust is always the first and most important thing we do," Cruzdebaeza said. "I have to let them know they do have options, they can get away from their abusers and don't have to live in fear. It's a long process, but it's available to them."
That process involves applying for either a VAWA Visa or U Visa. One of the major sticking points for Republican House members was the expansion of the visa program, which allows immigrants without documentation who have been abused an opportunity to apply for a visa and eventually citizenship.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to apply for a VAWA Visa, the victim must establish they've had a relationship with the abuser, have been the victim of battery or extreme cruelty, reside with the abuser and have good moral character. If granted, a VAWA Visa gives a victim two years to apply to become a U.S. citizen.
U Visas require victims to have documented proof of the abuse, including assisting law enforcement in a case against the abuser, and character references, among other qualifications. If granted, victims have four years to apply to become a citizen.
Last year Cruzdebaeza helped secure 43 VAWA and U Visas for local women.
"U Visas are harder to get. They require more documentation, proof of abuse and take about nine months to complete," Haney said. "A big part of Giselle's job is helping victims navigate the legal process of applying and getting a visa. It's incredibly involved and requires a lot of travel to Jefferson City and Kansas City, as well as working with the police department and the (Pettis County) prosecutor's office."
A former physician in her native Mexico, Cruzdebaeza said she has no plans to leave CASA, where she has worked for a decade.
"When I first came to Sedalia, I was looking for work, but I was worried about my English skills, that they weren't good enough," she said. "I received a phone call (from a former CASA director) looking for someone who could translate and I volunteered for the position. I can't imagine leaving and doing anything else. It's very rewarding working here."
Haney said Cruzdebaeza goes above and beyond with her clients.
"We have a program that rivals larger metropolitan abuse support programs and one of the biggest reasons for that is Giselle," Haney said. "Class, race, political affiliation, immigrant status -- abuse crosses all lines and can effect anyone. If we didn't have funding to pay Giselle, I don't know what we would do. I do know there would be a gap in the number of women we were reaching and victims would be going unheard. I'm very glad that doesn't have to happen."
CASA holds regular support meetings for Spanish-speaking victims of abuse. For more information, call 619-0080 or the CASA hotline at 827-5555. All calls are confidential.
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