Victims of sexual assault can often feel alone and isolated, unsure of where to turn. And for Latino immigrants facing language barriers and cultural stereotypes, this feeling of hopelessness might seem insurmountable.
But Orange County agencies and authorities are working together to reach out to sexual assault victims from growing Latino communities in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, encouraging them to seek help.
In response to outreach efforts, the Orange County Rape Crisis Center saw a 74 percent increase in Spanish-speaking clients during the 2010-11 fiscal year — and the number has continued to grow.
Since the beginning of July 2011 through this February, 103 of the total 355 victims and those close to them served at the center were Spanish speakers, a major increase from the 44 Spanish-speaking clients the previous fiscal year.
“We definitely were not expecting to see such a large increase in the Spanish-speaking community, but we’re happy people are recognizing us as a service,” said Shamecca Bryant, executive director for the Orange County Rape Crisis Center.
Laura Zarate, the founding executive director of Arte Sana, or Art Heals, which offers bilingual training and technical assistance to Latino sexual assault victim’s rights advocates, said this growth in sexual assault reports follows a national trend.
“It’s always been there,” she said. “We’re starting to detect it more and recognize that marginalized communities are more vulnerable.”
Even as the number of Latinos reporting sexual assault in Chapel Hill and Carrboro has increased, local law enforcement and victim’s rights organizations say language and cultural barriers still prevent many more Spanish speakers from coming forward.
An increase in reports
From 2007 to 2011, there were 30 reports of sexual assault in Carrboro, according to records from the Carrboro Police Department.
Carrboro Police Lt. Chris Atack said the police department does not track the ethnicity of the victims who report sexual assaults.
“In terms of victims of sexual assault, we get a representation across the board of ethnicity and age,” he said. “It just kind of depends on the circumstance.”
Atack said although they do not record ethnicity in sexual assault reports, police are working to improve their response to incidents in the town’s growing Latino community, including sexual assault cases.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 14 percent of Carrboro’s population is of Latino origin, well above the state average of about 8 percent.
Sabrina Garcia, sexual assault and domestic violence specialist for the Chapel Hill police, said of 94 sexually-related cases reported by adults in 2007 — including sexual assaults, attempted sexual assaults and misdemeanor offenses, such as indecent exposure and peeping — six reports were made by Latinos.
Garcia said that was the most recent year the department recorded ethnicity, but based on her experience, she has seen an increase in the number of sexual assault reports from Latino victims.
“It’s unfortunate because it tells us that it exists, but what it also tells us is that the Latino community is trusting us more to help them,” she said.
Census data show about 6 percent of Chapel Hill’s population is of Latino origin, two times the town’s percentage in 2000.
Garcia said although trust between law enforcement and the Latino community is growing, responding to sexual assault cases — already one of the most under-reported and often misunderstood crimes — can get even more complicated by different languages and cultures.
Lost in translation
Although many reports of sexual assault are relayed to police from the hospital or crisis center where a translator is available, police officers sometimes respond to cases requiring on-scene assistance, which is difficult when the officer and victim speak different languages, Atack said.
“If you’ve got a lot of things going on, that can be very frustrating,” he said. “A lot of officers will use folks in the community to get a general idea of what’s going on.”
Officers can also use language translation phone lines, he said.
The Carrboro Police Department has one full-time officer and a part-time program assistant who are fluent in Spanish. Two other officers are proficient in conversational Spanish, and about five have some basic Spanish skills.
Most Spanish speakers are on the patrol division, but none are in the criminal investigation division that follows up on sexual assault reports, Atack said.
He said the department uses part of its training funds to send officers to Spanish classes.
Garcia said the Chapel Hill Police Department also hopes to increase their Spanish speakers.
In some cases, children are used as interpreters for their parents, forcing officers to balance the need for vital information with the child’s security, she said.
“Officers have to be sensitive to this challenge,” she said. “It’s a delicate balance.”
The Chapel Hill Police Department has six officers fluent in Spanish, and three are on the Sexual Assault Response Team.
Both departments would like to recruit officers who are already fluent in Spanish, but neither can offer extra pay for the skill because of budget restrictions.
As a result of these limitations, police often rely on other agencies with Spanish-speaking resources to help sexual assault victims.
Some reports come through the rape crisis center, which has offered bilingual services since 2007. Last year it began a partnership with the Carrboro branch of El Centro Hispano, which provides a wide range of services to the Spanish-speaking community.
Maria Morales Levy, Latino services coordinator for the rape crisis center, said many Latino victims feel more comfortable talking to a Spanish speaker.
“When you’re in crisis, it’s a natural thing to want to talk to someone in your native language.”
The rape crisis center has about 16 bilingual volunteers and staff members, Laurie Graham, programs director for the center, said in an email.
Graham said volunteers cover shifts at the 24-hour crisis help line and help with education programs, but the center typically doesn’t have bilingual volunteers in the office.
‘A crime is a crime’
Levy said nearly all of her Spanish-speaking clients are undocumented, and their immigration status can be a major obstacle preventing Latinos from reporting sexual assaults.
“It is that fear that police is immigration, and they are going to be deported,” she said. “And I tell them, ‘A crime is crime.’”
Zarate, from Arte Sana, said she has seen cases where undocumented immigrants working in hotels and cafeteria chains are sexually harassed and targeted by employers.
“They think, ‘Well you’re an immigrant and you’re not going to tell anyone,’” she said. “That’s an unfortunate part of the reality.”
According to a survey published in 2009 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 77 percent of Latina women who live in the South said sexual harassment was a major workplace problem.
Atack said the Carrboro Police Department never inquires about a victim’s immigration status when a sexual assault is reported.
“That’s not something that enters our realm of concern when someone’s reporting a crime to us,” he said.
Garcia said the Chapel Hill Police Department has a similar philosophy — police only ask about a sexual assault victim’s immigration status to provide additional services.
Some victims can also apply for temporary visas, given to victims of certain crimes who assist officials during the investigation or prosecution of criminals.
Barriers beyond words
Latino victims reporting a sexual assault also face cultural barriers, Zarate said.
“Sexuality is a really big taboo within conservative Latino populations,” she said.
Levy said cultural barriers especially exist for sexual violence within domestic relationships and marriages, one of the most common reports she receives.
“The consequences are even worse than being raped by a stranger because here is a person that you want to make a life together,” she said.
Levy said many victims feel bound by traditional Christian beliefs and family connections.
Garcia said she has encountered similar challenges.
“If you come from a very traditional upbringing and a traditional cultural development, marital rape may be seen almost as like a duty,” she said.
Levy said volunteers at the rape crisis center must understand Latino cultural norms.
“Many times, you cannot even mention the word rape too much, to say it. Many times I use, ‘You have been attacked.’”
The center tailors its educational programs to Latino culture.
“This is a presentation for getting happy families, more safe and secure — that’s one way to present things,” Levy said.
Sustaining Latino services
Orange County isn’t alone in its demand for Latino services. Based on statistics compiled from crisis centers statewide, the number of Latino clients has more than doubled since fiscal year 2008-09.
Monika Johnson Hostler, executive director of the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said crisis centers need more bilingual services.
Bryant said as the local demand from Latino clients rises, Orange County’s center is trying to sustain its current services.
The center’s bilingual therapist is leaving at the end of June when the state grant that finances her position runs out. Despite a desire to hire a full-time bilingual therapist, the center lacks money to do so.
In the meantime, the center will make referrals to private therapists and other organizations, and will work with Latino community members themselves.
“It’s not just a group’s work, it’s everybody’s work,” Levy said. “We have to take care of each other and work together.”
Contact the City Editor at email@example.com.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.