Casa de Esperanza: Reducing Gender-Based Violence

Nallely Castro Montoya and Sarahi Mateo. Photo Sarah Whiting

Minnesota Women’s Press is launching a series of intergenerational conversations with women who have been engaged in long-standing issues — reflections from elders and new leaders about how the work is evolving, what the solutios are, and what readers can do. This is the first in that series, focused on the issue of gender-based violence as led by the Latinx team of Casa de Esperanza. Find the video discussion at with Sarahi Mateo, shelter manager of El Refugio; Nallely Castro Montoya, leader of Casa de Esperanza’s youth engagement program; and Sandy Vargas, Casa board chair and long-time advocate.

Q: The pandemic leads to greater isolation. Abuse and domestic violence tend to isolate survivors. How has the pandemic impacted what you see?

Mateo: At first it was difficult to learn how to offer our services remotely. The number of calls on our crisis line increased threefold — more people looking for resources, orders for protection, seeking shelter, information about our programs. We had to partner with other shelters because we did not have enough space.

More youth are also witnessing abuse at homes. One called the crisis line when police were at the home. [Sometimes] partners are assaulted when children are away at school. Now more of them are witnessing the abuse. It is heartbreaking to hear that. What effect will this have on those children, normalizing this behavior?

Vargas: Staying at home, not able to leave, [and financial pressures], increases the inclination toward violence. We sent some people to hotels because there was no remaining shelter space for them to go. That is a very isolating experience, not being in your own home.

Minnesota is at the bottom nationally for Latinx graduation. It is such a shame, as a rich state, that we cannot get an educational system that meets the needs of our community. Kids are doing homework on phones. That is very isolating for parents, knowing your child is not getting anywhere close to the type of education you would love to have for them.

Q: There is ongoing work to do around masculinity. Is the engagement of men and boys in these conversations working?

Montoya: It starts with building rapport, trust, making everyone feel welcome and involved, creating safe spaces defined by them. Our Masculinity Circles talk about male privilege, challenging norms, traditional masculinity. It is not about shame, but dismantling what they have learned, based on values — the positive and negative traits of masculinity. Some openly share they have been survivors of assault.

Mateo: It is about learning about choices, what is right and not. No one wants to break up families, have people get arrested, have children taken away. It is about not assuming people will leave abusive partners. In families, that also includes [different cultural training], such as not serving men meals first — making all things equal for females and males.

Vargas: I am the oldest of eight. My four brothers were with me for the holidays. I asked them to pitch in. It is about talking to my nephew about how he treats women. It is also about the different expectations that comes from Catholicism — girls are pious, boys can do whatever they want. We have to put a stop to that.

Q: Have we seen changes in the stigma surrounding reporting abuse?

Mateo: The stigma persists in [the decision around] whether to come forward or not. If there is a removal of the partner from the home, it is also removing everything that comes with it: an in-law who helps watch the kids, financial support. Many do not want to get involved in the criminal system, being questioned by police about document status. They see situations when a partner is put into ICE custody and deported, leaving family here without financial support, which is not serving justice.

Vargas: There is a huge amount of shame that victims feel, which is what the system has done over a long period of time, heaped on women in particular. It was not that long ago people asked, ‘what did women do to bring it on?’ We want our families to stay together — we just want the domestic violence to go away. Currently the system makes us choose between one or the other. Casa de Esperanza is working with community experiences to create thought processes around a middle ground and new policy at the highest levels.

Sandy Vargas

Q: What should the role of police be?

Vargas: We know the images of police in people’s minds, acting in the wrong way against men of color in particular. There is a lot of fear that it might happen to someone we love, even though they might be an abuser. There is starting to be more push to get different kinds of professionals involved in the conversation during a crisis. Who is the better resource than police to intervene?

Montoya: We still need more training to help police talk to survivors. In one case, an officer ended the interview [with a young woman abused by a neighbor], “now you know not to talk to strangers.” This led to more shame felt by the youth who then believed it was her fault.

Mateo: Not all contact with police has been negative. But many participants feel intimidated when they call, about their documented status, the language barrier. Sometimes children in the family have to be used as interpreters, and listening to that kind of report can have a terrible impact. In four cases this year, women were arrested as the aggressor; the police only heard the men’s side because the women needed an interpreter and there was none.

When people call our crisis line, we inform them about their rights to have an interpreter, that they are not required to let police know about documentation status.

Q: What are the priorities needed in policy and systems change?

Mateo: We need an increase in transitional housing funds. Helping to cover rent allows those we serve to take care of mental health and children, move from shelter back into community.

Montoya: There are challenges from the backlog of documentation requests, waiting years. Before the pandemic, we also were working with schools around student awareness related to assault or abuse. There is a policy against teachers perpetrating sexual relationships on students, but no policies when students are sexually assaulting other students — there is an assumption that it doesn’t happen, but it does.

Vargas: If people don’t have resources, there are not a lot of options, and that is when things get out of hand. Thankfully, Casa de Esperanza was recently honored by getting a big grant from MacKenzie Scott [the 2nd wealthiest woman in the world as of December 2020], who saw the breakthrough work we were doing. Not many grants go to organizations led by people of color. We invite everyone to join us in making sure we can create a world, a country, a community that lives in prosperity without violence — link arms with these amazing women.

Casa de Esperanza’s crisis line is bilingual, available 24 hours a day, and open to any callers. 651-772-1611

Watch the Conversation

Casa de Esperanza speaks on the value of Lantinx leadership and the stigma around reporting abuse.
Casa de Esperanza speaks on the pandemic’s impact on youth and the initiatives they are creating in schools.

Action = Change

Readers can support reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which supports prevention programs. It offers flexible funding that can include conversations about dating violence and healthy relationships, mental health support, and substance abuse resources. Casa de Esperanza has emerged as a national organization that is also moving into international work with partners.

The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence recommends calling 202-224-3121 and asking to be connected to your Senators. Then call 202-225-3121 and ask to be connected to your Representative. If you don’t know who your Members of Congress are, enter your address HERE. 

Tell them the following:

“My name is [your name], and I am calling from [your city and, if you are a victim advocate, your program]. The American people are relying on you to enact another COVID-19 relief package. [Share anecdotes/challenges specific to your program/community]. This package must meet the needs of survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. It needs to include flexible funding for the Sexual Assault Services Program; update the Victims of Crime Act to stabilize the Crime Victims Fund to prevent cuts; provide flexible funding for culturally specific domestic violence and sexual assault organizations through the FVPSA office; include flexible funding for FVPSA; and provide economic stability for survivors who have to leave their jobs due to violence.” 

Link to find the Twitter handles of your representatives and senators.