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Domestic Violence in Santa Cruz County is at an All-Time High—What’s the Solution?

Experts agree that education is needed to help prevent domestic violence, but it’s much more complicated

Monarch Services co-Executive Director Kalyne Foster Renda says that healing trauma is an essential part of solving domestic abuse.

[Warning: this article discusses domestic abuse. — Editor]

When it comes to preventing and ending domestic abuse, which has hit an all-time high in Santa Cruz County, it all starts with education.

Experts I spoke to repeatedly emphasized that educating children on how to process difficult emotions, educating our society on how to support victims of domestic abuse and even educating the abusers themselves are key pieces to addressing abuse.

“Many people have no idea why they behave the way they do,” says Jaime Molina, a local community activist who works on violence and trauma issues among youth. “And unfortunately, many people walk around not knowing how to acknowledge—or not even knowing that they carry—baggage.” 

Reported incidents of abuse are on the rise. Monarch Services, which offers a crisis line for women who are experiencing abuse in Santa Cruz County, reported a 75% increase in demand for its services in 2020. Staff at the nonprofit call the trend a “pandemic within a pandemic,” and noted that in the past year there have been five femicides (defined as the killing of a woman or girl, in particular by a man and on account of her gender) that resulted from domestic violence. 

In California, one out of every four women has experienced some form of abuse from a romantic partner. And if they are women of color, the chance that they’ve experienced abuse increases. Monarch Services reported that during the past year, 1,107 victims were of Latinx heritage. The total number of clients Monarch Services served during this period? 1,632.

“We’re seeing increases in violence in our county and really throughout the country. And in particular, in communities of color,” says Kalyne Foster Renda, the co-executive director of Monarch Services. “The reason for that is that collective trauma, coupled with cumulative trauma, which includes historical trauma through generations, deeply impacts both the frequency of violence and the severity of violence.”

The reason why domestic violence occurs more prominently for minority women goes beyond race. The higher rate of domestic violence in ethnic minorities isn’t a result of one single factor; it’s related to a myriad of reasons like education, income and history.

“When we have folks that are experiencing racism, sexism and, importantly, poverty, their levels of violence are going to increase,” says Foster Renda. “And stressors relating to financial hardship disproportionately affect women of color.” 

In fact, when talking about the prevalence of domestic violence in communities of color, acknowledging history is essential to understanding why it’s more common than in white communities, says Suzanne Falcón, an ethnic and Latino studies professor at UCSC. 

“Violence has always been part of U.S. history. One of the things I always keep in mind is the ways in which violence evolves, and the way in which violence permeates generations,” says Falcón. “It has been affecting women of color, and communities of color, for generations.” 

What’s also important is acknowledging the specific challenges each particular community faces, she says. For instance, with Indigenous women, domestic violence is related in part to jurisdiction issues, and not really having a clear mechanism of legal accountability, while factors in an immigrant community are likely more related to issues of citizenship. 

“For women of color, there’s almost a constellation of systems that result in domestic abuse impacting them disproportionately,” says Falcón. 

Rehabilitation as a Solution 

When asked to describe himself, Victor Cubilla says that he likes to joke around a lot. 

“I like to bust people’s chops, give people a hard time,” he says. “I don’t take myself too seriously and I don’t take other people too seriously.”

It’s true—he ends his sentences with chuckles, and given the opening for a joke, he doesn’t hesitate to try and lighten the mood with one. We are on the phone, but I imagine a friendly elbow jab would accompany his jokes.

He is also thoughtful with his answers, and surprisingly honest about his history of behavior. 

“I felt like verbal abuse wasn’t really a thing, because I think I would personally rather get yelled at than get the belt,” says Cubilla. “But either way, they’re both unacceptable.”  

Cubilla is the son of Mexican immigrants whose biological father left when he was a toddler. He lived in a home filled with emotional turmoil and financial struggles. His mother and stepfather each worked two, sometimes three, jobs. They tried to show up in his life, but the economical hardships, paired with living in a foreign country, led to volatile home life. 

“When I was younger, what I said didn’t matter to my family, and I felt like it wasn’t listened to,” Cubilla says. “So I got used to yelling and saying mean things. That stuck with me into my adult life.” 

Cubilla was mandated by a judge to enroll in Monarch Service’s Positive Solutions program, which aims to teach previous domestic abusers, perpetrators of either physical or verbal abuse, other ways to resolve conflict. It does this by helping bring awareness to participants’ emotions and giving them the chance to address past trauma. The program is based on the belief that abusive behavior is learned, and can be corrected.

All the men in the program have witnessed or been the victim of some form of physical or verbal abuse as a child. There’s an important link between witnessing abuse in the home and harming a romantic partner as an adult. Studies have found that men who witnessed abuse as children at home or were subject to abuse, are much more likely to resort to physical or verbal abuse in their romantic relationships as adults.

“One of the things that’s really hard around this population is that they have been a victim in their life, and they did not receive the services that they needed to heal whatever trauma that was,” says Foster Renda. “So then they do the behaviors that they have witnessed and they’ve known.” 

And, perhaps most importantly, one of the primary concerns victims of domestic abuse have when reporting abuse is a fear that their partners will get into legal trouble, says Foster Renda. 

“Our clients are telling us, ‘I want this family to stay together, I just don’t want the behavior of my partner,’” says Foster Renda. “We were also noticing that the person who does harm is jumping from relationship to relationship, and we’re serving all of their partners.”

So far, none of the people who have completed the program have been reported causing harm again. But the program is only 18 months old, and according to similar programs it’s modeled after, statistically, there will be a recidivism rate of 7%.

Still, the hope is that teaching abusers conflict-resolution skills, communication skills, how to better identify emotions and how to heal trauma will help address the source of harmful behavior, says Foster Renda.

“We’re not really taught that throughout our life unless we’ve had, you know, some kind of amazing teacher in our life, or parents that were clued into that,” says Foster Renda.  

Education in Schools

Molina wants to help heal childrens’ trauma and thinks every student should be taught communication and emotional skills.

Molina works with Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance (PVPSA), which provides school and community-based counseling services to youth in Pajaro Valley. He also works with La Cultura Cura, a youth program that uses cultural practices and traditions to reconnect youth with a stronger sense of self.  

He thinks some version of this program should be part of schools’ curriculum. Especially as students return to school and grapple with the consequences of the pandemic.

“Youth were freshmen when the pandemic started, and now they’re juniors and seniors. So what happened to social skills? Not all kids adapted well, and that’s contributing to the rising violence,” says Molina.

In May, the Department of Homeland Security warned that violence in schools would likely increase as students transitioned back to in-person classes. In retrospect, it feels like an eerie omen.  

In late August, the Aptos community was left stunned after the fatal stabbing of a 17-year-old high school student, an act of senseless violence County Sheriff Jim Hart had not seen in his 33 years in law enforcement. The next day, a 13-year-old middle schooler in Watsonville was arrested after police say she pulled a knife on another student, according to the Watsonville Police Facebook Page.

But violence in schools, like domestic abuse, isn’t new: the pandemic just exasperated what was already a worsening issue. Reported cases of bullying and harassment in K-12 schools have doubled each year between 2015 and 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League. In a survey of students attending UCSC between the years 2017 and 2018, 48% of students reported feeling overwhelming anger.

“Oftentimes, we don’t know what makes us tick—especially when we’re young,” says Molina. “I focus on helping youth identify the trauma they carry and look at some of the things that might be affecting their behavior.”

Teaching emotional intelligence in schools is gaining traction around the country. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence is one institution that brings emotional education programs to schools around the country. One study found that teaching kids how to identify and address their emotions led to a 10% increase in academic performance, and another showed a 12% improvement in classroom climate after one year. 

When asked if having a class that teaches emotional intelligence might have changed his harmful behavior as an adult, Cubilla says absolutely. 

“That’s something that’s never really covered in any class, but what are you going to do if you get really bad news, and you feel like you’re going to blow your lid?” he says. “And I think that would probably help a lot, especially when you’re first forming your first relationships.” 

Given the correlation between witnessing abuse as a child and harming a partner as an adult, we owe it to kids to teach them how to cope with traumatic experiences, says Molina. Especially when witnessing abuse at home is more common than you might think. Researchers estimate that between 3-10 million children are exposed to physical violence in the home annually. According to a study by the U.S. Office of Justice Programs, 60% of children have witnessed violence in their life.

“Change is absolutely possible. If we want to live in a community that is free of violence, it’s important that we heal traumas,” says Foster Renda. “When we allow poverty to be a normal part of our community, and for racism, sexism and all of those things to be present, then we also have the responsibility to heal that for folks.”

If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact any of the following organizations. Monarch Services offers a 24-Hour Bilingual Crisis Hotline, 888-900-4232, and has two locations in Santa Cruz County: 233 East Lake Ave., Watsonville, and 1509 Seabright Ave., Santa Cruz. For the Watsonville Office, call 831-722-4532. For the Santa Cruz office, call 831-425-4030. The Walnut Avenue Family & Women’s Center also has a 24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline: 866-269-2559. For information about their services, visit 303 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz, or call 831-426-3062. There is also the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233.

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