Anti-violence organization serves deaf community survivors

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The main office of the Alameda County Family Justice Center (ACFJC) is quiet. Peaceful. At 11 o’clock in the morning, seven people—a few on their phones, a few sleeping—wait for their names to be called. A Disney Channel theme song bursts out of a cell phone in the hands of a little boy, briefly interrupting the room before his mother mutes the device. A large poster featuring two adolescent boys, one leaning against the other in a protective gesture, hangs above the room. The boy in front holds out his two hands, with words written on each palm: one reads “I have the right to protection” and the other “I have the right to be heard.”

The receptionist greets visitors, flipping seamlessly between Spanish and English, depending on the client or administrator’s need. Clients will go through a navigator, who speaks with them about what kind of help they are seeking, and send them to the appropriate department among the 35 organizations housed in the center, which support victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and exploitation, human trafficking, child abuse, elder abuse and stalking.

Any deaf visitors will be directed to DeafHope, which focuses specifically on providing services to victims of domestic violence in that community. “We just feel like there really is a need,” says Aracelia Aguilar, an empowerment director with DeafHope, speaking through a relay interpreter via phone. “And we can see how people are trying to survive. There’s such limited communication.”

DeafHope was founded in 2003 by Julie Rems-Smario along with eight other women, who recognized there was a need for specialized services. Previously, says Rems-Smario, also speaking through a relay interpreter, in domestic violence cases, it was often easier for survivors to stay in an abusive home where the abuser knew sign language than to access services available for sexual assault or domestic violence victims, which were designed for the hearing community.

Women and mothers are often in an especially difficult situation, she says. For example, says Rems-Smario, if a woman went to Child Protective Services (CPS) or the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), she might be told that she had to leave her abusive partner or risk leaving behind her child. The abusive partner, then, might use this as a fear tactic in order to keep her from leaving.

“The Deaf mother was set up for failure by the system in the past,” says Rems-Smario, who now is president of the California Association of the Deaf. She also serves on the DeafHope board as chairperson. “That was the reality.”

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website, “Deaf and hard of hearing individuals are 1.5 times more likely to be victims of relationship violence including sexual harassment, sexual assault, psychological abuse and physical abuse in their lifetime.” Some of the reasons cited by the creators of the hotline are that law enforcement officers may not be able to communicate with the person, or an abusive partner could mislead the victim about available services or take away her or his communication device.

Gallaudet Research Institute estimated that in 2014, 1.5 percent of California’s population had a hearing disability. The California School for the Deaf has always been located in the Bay Area, attracting the families of many deaf children to the region. The school was founded in San Francisco in 1860, moved to Berkeley in 1869 and has been located in Fremont since 1980.

Violence against this community can be very serious. Paintings hang outside the DeafHope office, each one memorializing a woman who murdered by an abuser. To the far left, woman with blue eyes and dirty blonde hair beams out at passersby, framed against a yellow-green and pink background. Angels flutter around her head, white wings arching from her back and underneath her chin a golden cloud holds the caption, “Priscilla Vinci 1953-1987.” Below it is a quote: “My ex-boyfriend repeatedly stabbed my mother and me when I decided to end our relationship.”

Seven other women, all winged and surrounded by angels, smile from the wall against a brightly colored background. The quote under an image labeled “Kisha Sullivan 1975-2002” reads, “I was murdered in the woods with a blow to the face. My baby can never have his mother back.” Amber Burroughs (1979-2006) shares the painting with Kisha Sullivan, and her quote reads, “I was suffocated by my deaf ex-boyfriend. He violated my protection order when he broke into my home. My two children found my body.”

Once a person who walks into the Alameda County Family Justice Center is identified as being deaf or hard of hearing, he or she is directed to DeafHope’s office. If a DeafHope director is not present, the person can use a computer for communication, to be referred to one of the center’s three “client navigators,” who meet with them and determine what services they need. The navigator later follows through with the client to ensure these services were appropriate and fit their needs.

DeafHope holds support groups and offers peer counseling, trains service providers and interpreters on how to best serve survivors of trauma, and has helpful information available on its website. Videos and Public Service Announcements (PSA’s) are a key component of the site, some subtitled but all with the people in them signing. The videos feature victims telling their stories, show how respectable-seeming neighbors can in fact be abusers in the home, and even have anti-bullying videos geared towards children.

“DeafHope PSA’s all really help shift the society’s perspective on domestic violence and sexual violence,” says Rems-Smario. “To get the community dialoguing on this: What does domestic violence, sexual violence look like?” The videos, she adds, are effective tools because they portray real-life scenarios in American Sign Language (ASL).

Much of the support provided by DeafHope is based on one-on-one support and side-by-side advocacy, so that survivors don’t feel like they’re alone in the system, particularly when they are accessing police or court services, Rems-Smario says. The DeafHope advocates are unique in that they are able to communicate directly with clients, are system-savvy and are experts in domestic violence and sexual violence.

Courtrooms can pose challenges to deaf people. While the American Disabilities Act requires that a signing interpreter be provided at all times in court, sometimes, says Rems-Smario, the interpreter is not always qualified to interpret ASL. In that case, a DeafHope advocate, who will accompany a survivor into the courtroom, will empower a survivor to request a Certified Deaf Interpreter.

“If the wrong interpreter is provided and the wrong information is interpreted, serious damage can happen in that case,” says Rems-Smario.

Rems-Smario also says it can be a challenge for many deaf people to become self-advocates if they haven’t been taught ASL. Medical professionals often tell parents not to enforce signed language, she says. Instead, they will have their child wear a hearing aid or a cochlear implant, an electronic device that is surgically placed under a deaf person’s skin on the back of his or her head, and that directly sends auditory signals to the brain.

Oftentimes, says Rems-Smario, the goal of wearing these devices is for that child to become a hearing person. “But unfortunately, those system devices don’t accomplish that goal,” she says. “It’s about accessibility to spoken languages. And it doesn’t give you that. Not 100 percent.” On the other hand, she says, the child who grows up bilingually with ASL and English has a strong foundation in both languages.

The DeafHope organization operates independently, unlike most other anti-violence agencies that have been established under other existing programs. But by remaining independent, says Aguilar, DeafHope is able to retain more flexibility with the services they provide. If they were to rely on state funding, she says, the services would not be as targeted as they are as an independent organization.

DeafHope is often able to help victims from other states. “Often we get calls from Florida and Pennsylvania,” says Aguilar. “And there really isn’t anything right now for DV [domestic violence] and FV [family violence], that’s specific for the Deaf. So we just feel like it would be better if we were an out-of-state provider.”

DeafHope partnered with the justice center when it opened in 2005 as a collaboration between Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and the many organizations that focus on domestic and sexual violence. These services were “scattered throughout the county,” says Stephen Murphy, associate director of the center. “And it would be a second full-time job accessing the services. So they decided, ‘Let’s co-habitate them in one building.’”

By putting so many organizations related to domestic violence in one 30,000-square-foot building, the center did more than improve collaboration among these groups. They added convenience, says Aguilar. “If we have to go to the police, we go up to the third floor. And then we deal with legal aid, their office is up there,” says Aguilar.

In addition to the District Attorney’s office on the third floor, the center includes the Family Violence Law Center, a group that advocates for legal rights of survivors of domestic violence, and Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR), which provides advocacy and counseling for survivors of rape and incest, among many others. On Saturday mornings, the center holds a diversion program for young women who have been the victims of sex trafficking: if a woman is arrested for prostitution, she can attend the diversion program as an alternative to prison and as a way to help her leave sex work.

Rems-Smario hopes that someday the world will have zero tolerance for domestic violence and sexual violence, and “100 percent signed accessibility for Deaf people and Deaf people with disabilities.”

“If those two things happen,” she says, “we don’t need DeafHope anymore.”

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