AP NEWS

Santa Fe domestic violence survivor ‘a free woman’

December 23, 2018

A Christmas tree sparkled with lights and ornaments, shining above a growing pile of presents and brightening the house with holiday cheer.

Carla Acosta sat on the sofa facing the tree as her 15-month-old daughter, Mariam Neri, teetered around it and plucked a shiny red bauble from a lower branch. After taking a moment to stare at her newfound toy, the toddler stomped back to Acosta, holding up the ornament as an offering.

Acosta smiled and laughed. Her eyes glistened with joy — something that had been denied her for so long.

“I am free,” Acosta said. “I am a free woman.”

Acosta is a domestic violence survivor. She said she endured physical and mental abuse from two partners for more than two decades, but found life-changing solace — and help — from Santa Fe’s Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families.

She said the transformation turned everything around for her. Acosta became a U.S. citizen in 2016, remarried in 2017 and that year had her fourth child — her first in what she calls a healthy relationship.

“I’m fine and I feel happy,” Acosta said. “If I can do it, other women at Esperanza can do it.”

The holidays are a tenuous time for some families — and for assistance organizations like Esperanza. Spokeswoman Denise Vermeulen said staff members often see a decline in requests for services and hotline calls, in part because “survivors hope for the best.”

But when the worst happens, the Santa Fe Police Department wants people to know who to call. In the new year, the police department is seeking partnerships with nonprofits for educational campaigns about domestic violence and also plans to establish warrant roundups on accused abusers. A spokesman said officials also are discussing potential operations centered on repeat offenders.

“Everybody knows you should wear a seat belt, but you still see ads for it,” said Lt. Paul Joye, who oversees criminal investigations with Santa Fe police. “I would personally like to see something like that for domestic violence as well.”

Joye said police are interested in helping victims receive support.

“We want to remove any stigma on this and say they can come forward, and there’s hope,” he said.

Joye said this may be difficult for undocumented immigrants with fears of deportation. He said police have criteria for when to report people to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and being a domestic violence victim is not on the list.

“We want people to feel safe in their homes,” Joye said. “We also want them to feel safe with their local law enforcement.”

While domestic violence doesn’t discriminate by race, gender or age, Joye said he wants to see a united front within the community to combat such a pervasive problem.

“It’s all part of the bigger picture of trying to make the community at large better and overall safer,” Joye said. “There’s a lot of room to hopefully improve.”

Numbers on domestic violence in New Mexico are grim: According to a 2017 report by the New Mexico Interpersonal Violence Data Central Repository, 54 percent of adult abuse victims seeking services reported prior abuse as an adult. Of 21,362 domestic violence victims identified by law enforcement in 2017, only 30 percent sought help, according to the report.

Santa Fe police responded to 681 household assaults and batteries in 2018, and 39 percent of all assaults and batteries recorded in 2018 were against a household member, according to police data.

Esperanza aided 312 adult and 115 child victims in its shelter and nonresidential programs in 2018.

Acosta, 40, from Zacatecas, in central Mexico, knows firsthand about those numbers.

She migrated from Mexico to the United States without papers 23 years ago to join her mother in Santa Fe amid a community of immigrants from Zacatecas, where she met her first partner and had her first child.

They never married, but she said she was subject to his physical abuse. After one particularly violent attack, she left with her son. After filing charges in court, Acosta said she attended group support sessions for about a year and a half from 2000 to 2001 at Esperanza.

Eventually, Acosta fell in love with a Colombian immigrant. They married after she became pregnant with the first of their two children. She described the 15-year relationship as emotionally abusive and said her husband treated her like a servant.

She said the man also would use her undocumented status as a threat, force her to give all the money she earned working at Souper Salad to him and his family, and manipulate her by threatening to take away her children.

In 2013, he reported Acosta to New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department, which took away the kids.

Acosta said she knew she needed help and called Esperanza. Working with the nonprofit’s staff, she regained custody of her children and embarked on a path toward healing.

“The life behind me wasn’t easy,” Acosta said. “But now doors are open.”

Looking back, Acosta said she recognizes her first involvement with Esperanza wasn’t enough — not like the aid she received in recent years with more programs and individualized care. While she left one abusive relationship, she said she didn’t realize she was putting herself in another because her former husband was sweet at first.

“When you love somebody, you don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “I didn’t know he was using me.”

Acosta said after managing to leave her situation five years ago, she hopes to help others like her.

“Doing it alone is impossible,” she said, adding she never realized there were so many helping hands available.

Acosta attended Esperanza’s nonresidential program for about three years to get help she and her two younger children needed. She attended one-on-one sessions with a domestic violence advocate, support group sessions, exercises to rebuild her self-worth, healthy relationship education and communication skill building. The healing took time.

“Psychological abuse sometimes takes longer than physical” to recover from, said Samarí Rodríguez-Ríos, Esperanza’s nonresidential program manager and Acosta’s advocate.

Rodríguez-Ríos remembers a period when Acosta didn’t smile, saying most survivors feel broken at first.

“The person you were when you started the relationship starts to fragment, so you get lost,” Rodríguez-Ríos said.

Acosta jokes that when she met her husband, Hector Neri, she told him she doesn’t cook or clean. They met at work and she said she was nervous to get into a new relationship. They dated for three years before marrying.

“She risked her heart again,” Rodríguez-Ríos said. “That’s brave.”

It also entailed a lot of work. Acosta joined any program Esperanza recommended for her that led to better emotional well-being, language skills and family dynamics.

Rodríguez-Ríos said Acosta’s profound desire, or ganas, to overcome her abusive reality led to her success.

“She was invested completely,” Rodríguez-Ríos said. “That’s key if you want to move forward.”

Acosta said giving up wasn’t an option. From passing her citizenship test to working alongside Habitat for Humanity on her roof while nine months pregnant, she didn’t let anything get in the way.

“It’s a special time to be living here for Christmas because it’s a day to celebrate together,” said Acosta’s eldest daughter, Alejandra.

Rodríguez-Ríos calls Acosta more a thriver more than a survivor. She’s been able to rebuild her home, family and sense of self.

“We’re resilient and we have the innate ability to come back from traumatic experiences and reinvent ourselves and give meaning to [the experiences],” Rodríguez-Ríos said. “Thriving in and of itself is an ability we all have.”