Fighting to help victims of domestic violence in Puerto Rico
In 1989, Puerto Rico was applauded for approving one of the most progressive laws against domestic violence in the Caribbean and Latin America. Since then, the island has only stepped backward in protecting women from domestic abuse.
Supreme court rulings, government cutbacks and bureaucracy have left government organizations and shelters without adequate funding. Nonprofit organizations struggle to pick up where they left off, making them all the more important to the victims of domestic violence in Puerto Rico.
In 2006, Policía de Puerto Rico. Unidades Especializadas de Violencia Doméstica reported 46 incidents of femicide per million, compared to 3.27 per million in the United States for the same period. Some 20,000 domestic violence incidents are reported yearly, according to official sources.
Casa de la Bondad, a nonprofit organization founded in 1993, is one of the groups fighting to offer shelter, counseling, legal advocacy, supportive housing and collateral services to the female survivors of domestic violence and their children. It is the only organization serving the Eastern region of the island.
We were able to interview Arlene Fromer, Founder and current Board Vice President of Casa de la Bondad to find out more about the struggle facing nonprofits as they fight against domestic violence in Puerto Rico
What inspired you to start Casa de la Bondad?
While working as an account executive at a radio station in in Connecticut, I was introduced to a woman who managed a local domestic violence shelter. I decided to get involved and ended up serving on the board of directors for many years.
When I arrived in Puerto Rico from New England, I immediately noticed a lack of support for women. Once you’re involved in helping women, it’s not something you can walk away from. I’ve been volunteering for more than thirty years. I started working on starting Casa de La Bondad in April of 1993.
I opened the office on my birthday as a present to myself. One of our board members said that she’s never seen something get off of the ground as fast as I made this happen.
What are some of the most difficult things you have experienced operating a nonprofit in Puerto Rico?
In the beginning everything was difficult. I’ll admit that I have no sense of direction. Keep in mind that we did not have the internet, and no GPS navigation device for your car. I relied on the kindness of strangers to find government buildings and to file permits, and the generosity of new friends in Palmas Del Mar for introductions to local business leaders, volunteer board members, and potential funders.
Right now the most difficult things are maintaining the funding. With all of the government cut backs, funding is always a concern. The foundations this year are also tightening their belts.
Our shelter has very well qualified employees, however the need for services is not decreasing. All of the shelters on the island are full.
Who have you helped over the years?
In 2014, the non-resident program at Casa de La Bondad assisted 215 women and 50 children. Our Fajardo office for legal advocacy in the Superior Court assisted 304 women. There were approximately 304 cases of legal advocacy, as well a 380 legal orientation sessions and over 400 counseling sessions conducted.
Within the last week, we have a woman who is moving into her own apartment with her two children. Also this week, we were able to raise financial support to fly another woman back home, off the island to safety.
Over the past 21 years, we have counseled more than 8,500 women and offered safe refuge to over 1500 persons.
We have an office for legal advocacy in the superior courthouse in Fajardo (where we process orders of protection and provide referrals). In addition, we visit Yabacoa once or twice a week to meet with women who can’t make it into the office.
What would you like people to know about Casa de La Bondad?
We’ve kept women and children safe and work in a completely transparent fiscal environment. Our employees are absolutely committed working in such a dangerous occupation that is life saving and life changing.
The money we raise save lives as we are dealing with women and children. Not numbers or potholes in the street. Education is so incredibly important for changing behavior. This is not just violence against women, it’s family violence.
What keeps you going on a daily basis?
Our motto is “Your dignity deserves to be respected” and I know that we’re changing lives. Whenever I am feeling in a funk, I go to the shelter. After five minutes of seeing women and kids safe and starting to mend and put their lives back together, that’s all that I need. They’ve had newborn babies to women up to 70 years old. Domestic violence can impact anyone.
What are some ideas you encounter about domestic violence?
The idea that women can just walk away. They really can’t. They come to us when they have absolutely no other recourse. They come to us when their lives are threatened or their children are in danger. There are only 9 or 10 shelters on the island and they are all full.
What is the most important thing you can tell someone who is in a domestic violence situation?
Trust your instincts, reach out for help and make a plan. Women don’t trust their instincts enough.
How can people support Casa de La Bondad?
In addition to our public and private funding sources which are assigned for specific things, unrestricted funds allow us to continue providing the shelter and support services. The organization employs 15 full and part time employees and has an annual budget in excess of $525,000.
Upcoming fund raising events:
I’m hosting an art show of my own work in February 2016 at the Palmas Athletic Club where a portion for the proceeds will benefit the organization.
Donations can be made directly to Casa de La Bondad or visit the website for a list of needed items.