The abuse started with a few insults. When Wendy, a deaf woman, met her college boyfriend, he was popular and attractive, so she put up with the harsh way he spoke to her. Then he gave her a black eye.
“I thought it was normal, and that that was love; that it was just a part of when you care about somebody,” Wendy, 38, who didn’t want to be identified by her real name because she has yet to go public with her story, said through a sign language interpreter. “Then the insults became a little bit physical, and then a cycle began.”
The cycle included her boyfriend holding her hostage in locked rooms after arguments, once almost forcing her to go to the bathroom in a bucket because she couldn’t leave. He beat her up on her 27th birthday, but she didn’t report it at least partly out of fear no one would believe her. She tells the story of a fellow deaf friend who was abused by a significant other, and when police came to investigate, they didn’t believe the deaf friend was abused.
“It’s why deaf people don’t report to police,” Wendy, a deaf community advocate in the central New York area, said. “It’s always ‘they won’t believe me.’ ”
Deaf women experience sexual and domestic abuse at much higher rates than women who hear, but are unlikely to report it. A new initiative announced last week from the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York City-based nonprofit, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime aims to change that by training police officers to facilitate communication with deaf victims, such as teaching them how to find legitimate sign language interpreters. Activists say many law enforcement officials don’t know the best way to communicate with deaf victims, discouraging the victims from reporting abuse.
“Now, they don’t have equal access to get the help they need,” Erin Esposito, a deaf woman and executive director of the Rochester, New York-based Advocacy Services for Abused Deaf Victims, said of deaf victims. “The goal is to create an atmosphere where deaf people can feel confident to go into a police station and get help.”
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The Translating Justice Initiative is a three-year program, funded with a $1 million grant from the U.S. Justice Department that will go toward virtual and in-person training sessions of police officers, prosecutors and court administrators to help them better communicate with the deaf, as well as the hard of hearing and those with limited English proficiency. The training is intended to enable police agencies to look at their policies regarding deaf victims, revamp them to better facilitate communication and show officers how to better use resources already out there to help the deaf, said Susan Shah, one of the co-leaders of the initiative.
Officers will be instructed in telephonic interpretation services, finding interpreters in the community and ways to avoid outdated technology, Shah said. Another major part of the training is teaching police to reach out to the deaf community so deaf victims of domestic and sexual abuse can feel more comfortable coming forward.
There is no cookie-cutter training for every police agency as every one has different levels of how well they interact with deaf people, Esposito said. While there have been localized efforts to fund programs for deaf victims, this is one of the only national initiatives providing this type of training, activists said.
No one event spawned the project, which has been in development with the Justice Department and other agencies, such as Advocacy Services for Abused Deaf Victims and the National Center for Victims of Crime. The Office for Victims of Crime said in a statement that inroads had been made in recent years to serve victims who have disabilities or limited English proficiency, and that the program came about to bring together local efforts to help deaf victims.
“Attention is growing on the need for law enforcement to be accessible to everyone, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing, and the need for interpreters,” said Susan Howley, public policy director at the National Center for Victims of Crime, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization that partnered with the Vera Institute for the initiative.
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Deaf women are perceived as easy targets of abuse because there is a “who are you going to tell” mentality, said Jennifer Shaw, the shelter coordinator at Vera House, a Syracuse, New York-based shelter for domestic abuse and sexual assault survivors.
Not much research exists on deaf women who suffer abuse, but some studies suggest that 50 percent of deaf women are sexually abused. The Office for Victims of Crime said deaf adults are twice as likely as hearing adults to experience sexual assault, while the Vera Institute says deaf women face sexual assault and domestic abuse at twice the rate of women who can hear.
“When we think about abuse we think about how disempowering it is for anyone who experiences it,” said Kristine Chapman, director of community engagement at the Lawrence, Kansas-based Willow Domestic Violence Center, which provides services to victims of domestic abuse. “With the deaf population, it is so increased; the deaf community in general have experienced a life of disempowerment.”
While American Sign Language interpreters are typically considered the best option for deaf victims to communicate with police, they aren’t always available, and sometimes police departments don’t know where to find them. Even if a police department has an officer who knows some basic signs, American Sign Language incorporates more than just hand gestures — such as facial expressions — to communicate, and if an interpreter isn’t available, what a deaf victim may be trying to communicate can get misinterpreted.
“I had an experience with survivor at a local hospital where the interpreter had left and the exam was not complete. This individual was becoming frustrated, making gestures with her mouth and eyes and shaking her fist in the air,” Shaw said. “At the time the hospital staff took that as a threatening. My experience was that she was not threatening, she was just frustrated.”
Police departments sometimes have an officer or two who know a few signs, but certified sign language interpreters have a depth of knowledge that is necessary to communicate what a deaf victim is saying, Esposito said. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 requires that police agencies bear the responsibility of paying them, which could create a disincentive for departments to hire one.
“Our society, including law enforcement, is structured around hearing people. Institutions and emergency response are not often trained to communicate with deaf or hard of hearing individuals, are unfamiliar with legal obligations, are not budgeting for qualified American Sign Language interpreters, and also are often unable to secure such interpreters in a crisis,” the Office for Victims of Crime said in a statement.
Deaf people also often rely on family members to translate for them, which could create problems when that person is trying to report domestic abuse if the abuser is also the one who communicates for the victim, Howley said. There are also instances where there is a child who communicates for a deaf parent, but who may not be willing to tell police the complete truth of what the abused parent is saying if that child feels ties to both parents — the victim and the abuser.
The communication barrier has led to a lack of trust between police and deaf victims, Shaw said, making it so that abuse is not typically a conversation in the deaf community. Shaw said when she has brought together leaders in the deaf community to talk about sexual violence in the past, many had never talked about it before.
“Because of prior bad experiences they aren’t coming forward,” Shah said of deaf victims. “You hear about these situations where the alleged perpetrator is given the benefit of the doubt, because the alleged perpetrator can hear.”
Besides feeling the emotional toll of domestic abuse, Wendy also said she survived sexual abuse, as well. A deaf man she knew tried to sexually assault her when she was 14 at a camp for deaf children, and in this instance she did tell police about the abuse.
She was sexually assaulted, however, when she was about 7 years old, something she didn’t recognize as abuse until she was 18 and was watching an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” dealing with sexual abuse in families. Wendy’s roommate asked her if something like that had ever happened to her.
“No way,” she told her roommate, but she mentioned that did play house with someone she knew very well. That’s when she tried to figure out how much older he was then her.
“When I was about 7, that person was much older,” Wendy said. “That’s when it really hit me — that wasn’t appropriate, we weren’t just playing house.”
The increased attention on deaf victims comes from a number of factors, including advancements in technology making it easier to train more sign language interpreters. Technological advancements have sprung up in recent years that help deaf victims make reports, such as 911 systems allowing victims to text complaints, but are still not standard procedure. Other factors include deaf victims’ advocacy organizations proliferating and offering more training, as well as an increased professionalization of victims’ service organizations, Howley said.
Advocacy groups in recent years have tried to train their workers to specifically deal with deaf victims. To make victims feel more comfortable, Chapman said that at the Willow Domestic Violence Center workers have been trained to ask victims if they are fully deaf and would like an interpreter instead of assuming they can’t hear at all, and making sure the workers maintain eye contact the entire time they are speaking with a deaf victim, something very for communication in the deaf community.
Esposito, 41, knows the pain of being abused as a deaf woman — born deaf into a family of hearing people, she was sexually abused by her father and older brother starting at the age of 3 and continuing until she was 13, when she got her period for the first time and when her family moved, she said through an interpreter. Her father continued to physically abuse her for years, and she also watched as her father abused her mother, as well.
Growing up, this type of domestic and sexual abuse was never talked about, something Esposito said is slowly changing. She said she never would have thought to tell police she was being abused.
“Even if I did try to communicate back then with other people,” Esposito said, “it probably would have been countered with my father saying ‘she’s deaf, it was a misunderstanding.’ ”