Shelter network leader calls out lack of protections for youth

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

“This represents how vulnerable our system is for not having a plan or statistics in order to articulate a preventive response that educates and protects our youth.”

This is what Puerto Rico Domestic Violence Shelter Network President Vilmarie Rivera Sierra told the Star after she was asked for a response to the arrest of a man who kidnapped a 16-year-old girl and threatened a social worker in the southern San Juan district of Cupey.

“There’s lack of resources, there’s lack of plans and there’s a lack of commitment to educate and prevent,” Rivera Sierra said. “We have to let our youth know what measures they must take to protect themselves, the outlets they have available in case of any danger and how they can walk freely and ensure their physical safety whenever they face a threat alone.”

Meanwhile, she added, government agencies must sit down and discuss immediately which enforcement entities must be put in charge to protect citizens, and how to provide reliable data upon which to deliver effective public policies.

“There’s no plan. We don’t even have accurately curated statistics, so that someone can carry out [policy based on] them, and all of a sudden, we don’t know who to blame, if it’s the [Puerto Rico] Police [Bureau], if it’s [the Department of] Justice, or [some other agency] that some say has an enforcement role, like the Women’s Advocate Office,” Rivera Sierra said. “We must sit down and see who’s in charge because our youth are exposed to danger.”

Regarding the responses from Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced and Women’s Advocate Lersy Boria via Twitter on the alarming increase in cases of women, especially those under 30, being kidnapped, Rivera Sierra described them as disappointing because victims are the ones that end up with no choice or resources for help.

“Whenever we face situations like atmospheric events, natural disasters, or even in the midst of a pandemic, statistics have proven that gender violence cases increase, and that’s what we’re facing now, and it is disappointing that we, as a country, can’t get an articulate response,” she said. “There’s not a plan, and women don’t deserve to be caught in the middle of ego trips and quarrels. We need action.”

As for actions that should be taken, Rivera Sierra called on the government “to declare a state of emergency against gender violence and incorporate gender perspective within the schools’ curriculum,” something both her network and other non-profit organizations have been demanding since September 2019, to no avail.

Domestic violence shelters ‘have not received a face mask from any government agency’

The Star reported back on Sept. 10 that island Health Secretary Lorenzo González Feliciano said he has not seen or received a proposal from the Puerto Rico Domestic Violence Shelter Network for a special shelter for survivors with COVID-19. However, Rivera Sierra told the Star that the Network’s vice president, Lisdel Flores, delivered their petition to him personally and that it had been put into effect since April 25.

“It was at his office,” she said. “They had a meeting with groups that help homeless people and our network fell under that category. She [Flores] was the one who took the opportunity to give him the petition.”

Rivera Sierra added that, as president of the Network, she never got a response from the Health Department. Moreover, she said, back in April she met with the Family Department and the Women’s Advocate Office via the First Lady’s Office at La Fortaleza, and that she presented the shelters’ concerns about COVID-19 testing and the lack of infrastructure for housing domestic violence survivors who had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We knew that this was going to be an issue and that we had to assume responsibility and take the lead as community organizations have always done because of the government’s lack of action,” she said. “We haven’t received money from any agency. We haven’t gotten a face mask from any government agency. Organizations had to cover [the costs of] testing and protective equipment with their operational funds.”

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