Secret sanctuary against abuse in East Harlem

The Violence Intervention Program was founded in East Harlem in 1984 to provide services like counseling and emergency shelter or transitional housing for abused women.

The organization is located in an inconspicuous building and its address is kept secret to protect victims who leave their jobs and lives behind in search of a fresh and safe start.

Yet Northattan reports, VIP fields 14,000 calls a year on its domestic abuse hotline, then follows up by providing services to more than 1,000 women per year.

At a time when the demand for support services is rising, the fact that so much of the organization’s work is hidden means that reaching out is a very delicate task. Word of mouth is key. “A lot of people don’t know about us – especially recent immigrants who live in their enclave with friends and family,” says Valerie Leon, the community education and outreach coordinator.

On a wider cultural level, Leon says her promotional efforts often hit a wall of social taboos about domestic violence in Latino communities. “There’s a lot of victim-blaming: People think she must like it, she deserved it, that kind of thing,” she explains.

In Latino communities, reporting domestic violence has been further complicated by immigration issues.

…the federal Secure Communities program, first piloted by the Bush administration in 2008, is a “deadly” threat to Hispanics in New York. Under the policy, police officers submit fingerprints of all arrestees to a national database that is shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). If a violation is suspected, ICE can issue its own detention orders that lead to federal custody – and potential deportation.

… no one is going to call the police if it brings them into a community where there are people at risk of being picked up by immigration. In domestic violence cases, this could lead to a fear of reporting perpetrators for the sake of avoiding any contact with the law.

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