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SLO County's small Asian American population struggles with cultural stigma and language hurdles to report domestic violence 

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San Luis Obispo County racked up more domestic violence reports in 2020 than in 2019, but asking for help is a cumbersome process for non-English speaking communities.

The California Department of Justice's Open Data portal showed that SLO County's law enforcement agencies received 763 domestic violence-related calls for service last year. In 2019, they received 601 such alerts.

In spite of the increased number of domestic abuse calls to law enforcement's service lines in 2020, local shelter groups like Lumina Alliance experienced a worrying lull in calls for safety.

click to enlarge TOUGH TIMES Cultural taboos and language resources with limited publicity make it difficult to report domestic violence for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in SLO County. - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF RISE SLO
  • File Photo Courtesy Of Rise SLO
  • TOUGH TIMES Cultural taboos and language resources with limited publicity make it difficult to report domestic violence for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in SLO County.

"We had a long moment where there were significantly less people accessing services, because people were stuck at home with people harming them," said Christina Kaviani, Lumina's prevention and education director. "They don't have any free space to call, they can't leave the house. We were only doing virtual appointments and there wasn't a space for them to confidentially reach out."

Calls eventually trickled in, but at least one community remained relatively quiet. Kaviani said that her agency didn't see an influx of calls from Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the county. She said it could be due to cultural taboos, language barriers, and the small number of AAPI residents in SLO County. AAPI makes up only 3.7 percent of the county, according to the Unity Committee report from the SLO County Sheriff's Office.

"Definitely, there's a cultural aspect to reporting. Males report less, Asian Americans report less from what we've seen for decades and decades because of a cultural stigma around violence. Sex and sexual assault is not something you vocalize and talk about openly," Kaviani said. "It's something we see within Latine and Hispanic cultures as well, there's a lot of silence there. If we can't talk about the healthy, good stuff [like sexuality] then often the harm is not being talked about as well."

Kaviani also teaches a Gender and Women Studies class at Cal Poly. She credited the university as the most ethnically diverse space in the county, and often talks about cultural stigmas with her many Asian American students.

"SLO is a harder place to discuss it because we're kinda secluded a bit, from what I know. I've lived here for 14 years. In San Luis Obispo, it's really limiting, you walk around and you're not seeing a big demographic of brown, Black, and different colored folks," she said.

Shirley Luo, the resource center coordinator of Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence (APIGBV) said that the AAPI diaspora speaks more than 70 languages plus regional dialects.

"We've seen over and over that survivors are re-traumatized through this process because they're unable to give voice to their experience, or unable to express their needs. Other times, lack of language access becomes the thing that stops them from reaching out to police or services," Luo said.

Though Luo didn't have details about SLO County specifically, she said that even cosmopolitan cities with a thriving Asian American population like San Francisco face language access problems.

Data that can be helpful in understanding trends for Asian American issues is often scarce. The SLO Police Department told New Times that it doesn't track domestic violence, sexual assaults, and sexual abuse by race.

Language barriers and the absence of a common definition of domestic violence across Asian American subgroups aggravate gaps in data. The Oakland-based APIGBV's "best statistics" on intimate partner abuse in California's Asian American community is from 2007.

"A big part of the problem is that large studies are often conducted only in English and Spanish, leaving out survivors who don't speak those languages. The AAPI community also holds a lot of stigma around DV [domestic violence], meaning survivors are less likely to disclose their experience to researchers," Luo said. "Plus, many AAPI survivors might not even consider their experience DV, as defined in the Western sense. All this together means that AAPI numbers, when they're even included, look low, when in reality we know the incidence of violence is much higher."

Lumina, SLOPD, and the county Sheriff's Office use remote interpretation and translation services when interacting with domestic violence survivors who need it. The two law enforcement agencies use the state-funded Voiance Interpreter Network, while Lumina uses Alta Language Services.

Lumina also works to connect survivors and advocates with law enforcement agencies. The nonprofit even provides yearly training sessions on interacting with survivors and taking them to medical exams, though Kaviani said she wished the training happened more frequently. Both Lumina and law enforcement groups depend on each other to help survivors in the most "trauma-informed way."

SLOPD's neighborhood outreach manager, Christine Wallace, said that their first priority is to connect survivors to bilingual officers. If none are available, they reach out to some of the 51 certified bilingual staff members from the Sheriff's Office or allied agencies like Lumina and Transitions-Mental Health Association. Using Voiance's round-the-clock service is the third alternative. Wallace said that SLOPD officers and detectives receive extensive training on balancing information collection with sensitive interaction.

"Our officers come into this profession because they want to help people and make a difference in the community. We don't train compassion, we hire folks that already have it," she said.

SLOPD currently does not have a language access plan, which is a structured scheme that APIGBV recommends law enforcement agencies to adopt. The plan not only details how a law enforcement agency offers translation services but also accounts for how more community members can know about it. Wallace said that the SLOPD wants to learn more about it.

Kaviani also said that law enforcement agencies and hospitals should improve their advertising efforts for translation and interpretative services.

"There's some work there that probably could be smoothed out for monolingual speakers in San Luis Obispo, as far as hospital and law enforcement agencies [are concerned], and for it to be very clear that you can come to these agencies, and we'll get translations for you. Like, it's not a barrier if you don't speak English," Kavieani said. "That's not publicized and it doesn't feel easy."

Kaviani recommended that service providers reduce fear by making their resources more accessible.

"The most important thing [is that] people can communicate and feel understood, and not disrespected and made to feel strange, because then [they're] going to leave and not follow through with the [crime or medical] report," she said. Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.

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