Making Room for Culture: Domestic Violence Services and Minority Communities
Thursday, June 21st, 2018
Written by: Kelly Ranasinghe Esq., Managing Partner of Henderson and Ranasinghe LLP
Juan sat next to me on the bench, as impassive as any twelve-year-old in sneakers could be. We were outside his sixth grade classroom on a hot afternoon. I had arrived at his school just after his lunch. As an attorney and guardian-ad-litem for children, I often visited kids in school to talk in familiar surroundings.
At the age of twelve, Juan had been removed from his home after being exposed to horrendous domestic violence. By the time he was ten, he had seen his mother beaten, strangled and threatened with a firearm. He knew firsthand the effects of alcohol on his father. More importantly, he had also taken care of his siblings; two younger sisters and a baby brother. So it was no surprise to me, that when sitting outside the classroom, Juan’s only questions were about his siblings: “How are my brother and sisters?”, “When do I get to see them?,” and “Are they okay?.” He barely asked about his parents, and only vaguely spoke about himself.
Juan’s reaction was not unusual. In many minority communities, including Latinx, Hmong and South-east Asian populations, there is a strong emphasis on the role of older siblings in taking care of younger children. Juan didn’t just miss his sisters and little brother; he was deeply anxious that he couldn’t take care of them. In Juan’s eyes, the trauma of living with domestic violence paled in comparison to being absent from his siblings. This powerful relationship existed because Juan’s culture emphasized the strong social roles and morals of being a big brother.
Juan’s story speaks to how deeply culture influences cases involving domestic violence. We know, and have known for many years, that effective intervention in DV cases requires cultural humility. Culture is a predominant factor when victims assess the social and psychological cost of leaving a domestic violence relationship and seeking help. Culture influences how victims and batterers see system intervention, and accept services. Culture also helps shape and understand the emotional trauma of system intervention, particularly when violence necessitates the removal of children from the home. In domestic violence cases, the cultural dimensions that surround family relations are especially important. As noted by the Surgeon General in his discussion on Culture and Mental Health, for Latinx families, “…family connections facilitate survival and adjustment.”
But culture does not begin and end with ethnicity. While we speak of Juan as Latinx, it is more correct to think of culture as community based, rather than ethnically defined. Although a bright-line definition of culture does not exist, it is best described by thinking about a communities’ shared set of values and beliefs about the world. Yet to this day, the term ‘culture’ is often incorrectly associated with beliefs that are set in stone and ascribed to certain minority communities. Worse, many professionals tend to generalize wide cultural beliefs and ascribe them to individuals of a particular ethnicity. Neither are correct. Culture is part of all of us, but beliefs and values are individual. We each have our own unique cultural lens. An individual’s culture is a result of a unique set of those beliefs and mores which make up their cultural lens: an invisible prism through which they both see and interact with the world.
All domestic violence professionals, judges included, need to understand the power of a person’s cultural lens. An individual’s beliefs and values about gender, social roles, faith, and their family, affects both their perception and interaction with the system. Not only does it affect how a person receives and processes information, it may be determinative of how credibly they view that information.
Of course, this cultural lens also works the other way. When system professionals communicate with victims, they are also affected by their own cultural lens. Lawyers, advocates and service providers have their own powerful sub-cultures. Overarching these many collective beliefs is the larger culture of the legal system in general, and the culture of professionals who work in domestic violence advocacy.
Which brings us back to Juan. Without examining the dimensions of Juan’s culture, a knee-jerk reaction might be to think that Juan was parentified. Parentification is a common reaction in households with domestic violence. An older sibling might take on the roles of a parent and caretaker for his younger siblings in a manner which is incompatible with his age and maturity. But looking at culture helps us bring context to Juan’s reactions to domestic violence. Culture is a dimension of understanding the mental health effects of domestic violence exposure and victimization. Advocates who understand culture, can convey the effects of domestic violence with more nuance to the courts. Was Juan’s experience properly defined as parentification, or was it a particularly painful trauma brought on by a removal which struck to the core of his cultural identity? What does Juan believe about sibling relationships? What does he believe about family roles? These sort of questions might help courts and advocates better understand the underlying belief behind stresses and anxieties arising out of system-involvement.
We need to make room for culture in the way we handle domestic violence victims, batterers and families. The tendency of the court to think of cases one-dimensionally, and can be devastating to familial bond, and impair a litigants tendency to embrace services. Not only are culturally sensitive services more effective at reducing recidivism, but culture is an important component of mental health treatment, which is essential for survivor recovery. Understanding the important dimensions of privacy, dignity, communication, familial decision-making, and gender roles are central to an effective response to domestic violence.
 Special thanks to Summer Fitzgerald B.S., for her assistance editing this article.