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Domestic violence shelters still wait for public entities to provide safe spaces for survivors with

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

The Puerto Rico Domestic Violence Shelter Network has remained committed to providing help to domestic violence victims since the coronavirus pandemic emergency began on March 16, addressing concerns over how to take care of survivors who were symptomatic of or diagnosed positive for COVID-19 to La Fortaleza’s Medical Task Force on April 6, and since April 26 presenting a prevention protocol proposal to the Health and Family departments and the Women’s Advocate Office (OPM by its Spanish initials).

Since that time, both the network and its members have been waiting for the entities to provide safe spaces for COVID-19 positive survivors, Julia de Burgos Shelter Executive Director Coraly León Morales told the Star on Sunday.

León Morales said that because domestic violence shelters are common use spaces, concerns were raised as operators of those facilities feared survivors would be victims of a COVID-19 outbreak and didn’t have the physical space, or specialized resources such as nurses and in-house doctors, to address the needs of suspected and diagnosed victims. The Network determined therefore, that since they were not getting a response from the aforementioned entities, to develop a uniform prevention protocol proposal that was put into action at every shelter to guarantee medical services and protection to survivors.

“A Shelter Network member identified a space that was not being used and it’s apart from the other spaces that are being occupied by other survivors,” León Morales said. “In order to make that space work and receive domestic violence survivors who were diagnosed with COVID-19, we need funds to be allocated because nurses, doctors, personal protective equipment, and disinfection procedures are required to comply with every need not only for personal security but also medical security.”

León Morales also said Shelter Network members met with OPM’s deputy advocate, Marilyn Bermúdez, to speak about the protocol, of which they sent her a copy in July and, as recently as last week, they provided a copy to Family Department personnel.

“As a shelter, we identified that it was a great challenge as we haven’t gotten recurring access to COVID-19 diagnostic tests for either survivors or personnel. At the moment, personal protective equipment and disinfection products have been covered with our money, donations from sympathetic companies or non-profit organizations that have supported us so much so we can continue providing our services. This represents a great risk for both our employees and the survivors who are being sheltered,” she said. “From the moment the pandemic began, we raised our voices with our concerns, but we haven’t received a response or access to screening devices and other resources that could help our shelters perform better.”

Meanwhile, Women’s Peace Coordinator Executive Director Vilma González Castro said although the government has embraced recognizing services provided to gender violence survivors as essential, it has yet to reply to the petitions included in a letter sent to Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced on March 16 to, among other things, identify an employee from the Health Department to serve as a link between the entity and the shelters.

“We have lived through this since the passage of Hurricane Maria and [have learned] how important it is to have that link so our issues won’t dissolve in a sea of bureaucracy. We are talking about the lives of people here, and it’s important to address this because we must ensure their safety,” González Castro said. “We haven’t received answers from the Department of Health, we have gotten no answers about the tests for either employees or the sheltered; we have not received answers from many of the petitions we made. The organizations have been the only ones that have moved to respond to those needs, despite having far fewer resources.”

González Castro also said she can’t accept that the delayed response from the public entities such as the Health Department or OPM is due to a shortage of resources or time, and instead considers it to be more an “unwillingness” to perform their ministerial duties. Meanwhile, she said that even a year after women’s organizations met with the government to declare a state of emergency in Puerto Rico due to femicides, they are still waiting for answers.

“If they were actually willing [to work], this would have been resolved,” González Castro said. “We would have campaigns that would permanently be disbursed at every outlet. I don’t know why OPM is not taking on this sort of initiative; in fact, how many times have we heard about the OPM during this pandemic? Very few times, to be exact, and when she [the women’s advocate] appears, she ends up saying questionable things.”

León Morales: Police numbers on domestic violence incidents during COVID-19 pandemic ‘are far from our experiences’

From March 15 to Sept. 4, the Puerto Rico Police Bureau (PRPB) has reported 3,028 domestic violence incidents, which is 621 fewer cases than were reported during the same time period in 2019. León Morales, those numbers “are far from our experiences.” The executive director of the Julia de Burgos Shelter told The Star that an emergency line from community organization Proyecto Matria, where her organization and six others offer a 24/7 network that provides aid to gender violence victims, received 831 phone calls from April 23 to Aug. 18 that lasted an average of 15 minutes.

“These consist of almost 4,000 minutes of providing attention to survivors or informing family members about the available services,” she said. “If Matria sums up the calls that they received from their main phone line, it surpasses 1,000. This might have not resulted in protection order requests yet, but it shows you that survivors and their family members are looking for help, getting information and searching for services.”

Moreover, González Castro said she questions the PRPB numbers on domestic violence incidents given that a number of events have kept survivors from reporting their cases to authorities, Likewise, the head of the Women’s Peace Coordinator has always been concerned that statistics from public entities tend to be “delayed” and gaining access to recent data is “complicated.” She said further that variants like the earthquakes, the temporary closure of police precincts due to COVID-19 and confinement limited the number of survivors reporting their cases.

“When the Police report that they have seen a reduction of 621 [domestic violence] cases, I ask myself, are women capable of making a call to [report an incident] now as they could when things were ‘normal’? My answer is no,” she said. “We’re under a situation that we have talked about for a long time with other organizations that provide help to gender violence survivors -- that the pandemic has created a scenario that makes it more difficult for them to get any services. Throughout the pandemic, we have received more social media consultations than ever before.”

When the Star asked González Castro if the reduction represents an improvement in the battle against gender violence, she said no.

“In the world, gender violence cases have increased due to the confinement that COVID-19 brought about,” she said. “I can’t believe that things run differently in Puerto Rico from the rest of the world. Even data from the OPM has proven otherwise, as they have gotten more phone calls than before.”