Meet the Virgin Islands Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council
We are always honored when someone chooses to feature the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council (DVSAC) as our journey to basic acknowledgment by some of our community partners has been a long one at times and in fact, it is ongoing. Of all of our highlights though – from coordinating our Territorial Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) to presenting for national conferences including the National Sexual Assault Conference (NSAC) 2015/2016 and from establishing a commemorative fund for survivors with a local family to launching campaigns that engage men and boys in our community – the greatest is the resiliency and commitment of our staff; hence our decision to highlight the amazing women of DVSAC for this feature!
About DVSAC’s Amazing Staff
As the Executive Director (ED), it is always a ‘balancing act’ between my professional role and the other roles that I have in my personal life: survivor, mother, entrepreneur, and friend among others.
During my tenure as an ED, I have experienced domestic violence which has unfolded into a daily to weekly journey with law enforcement and criminal justice systems that seems more complex than my collaboration with them through the Coalition. In fact, as I prepare the submission for this feature, I am balancing thoughts of relief work and progress report due dates with preparations for a pro-se permanent restraining order (PRO) court case that I have in less than 24 hours. To say that I am anxious, overwhelmed, and uncertain is an understatement but to say that I appear unbothered, focused, and confident is a given. Thus, the hardest aspect of this journey is having to be ‘well’ for everyone while barely maintaining wellness for myself and likewise, being seen at the forefront of my agency and my family, all the while feeling unseen for who I am and what I feel – particularly by people who are in the work as I’ve seen first-hand, as an ED, how they can dishonor confidentiality, encourage gossip, perpetrate judgment, and question ability for people like me – a person who is both a survivor and a leader simultaneously, but then again… there is comfort in ignorance…right?
One of the most beautiful aspects of my journey, however, is the support that has come from unexpected places like people who aren’t trained in what to say or do, but simply ‘see me’ and treat me as a human being who is deserving of love, compassion, and respect – not for the hat that I wear but for the heart that I have. Thus, my inspiration after experiencing two Category 5 hurricanes in addition to my day to day experiences, is my family (my parents and son especially!) and also my staff who like me, experience the unimaginable – from loss, to mental health challenges, to abuse – but still persist at being their best for themselves and for others anyway. So with that, I am reminded of a quote by T. D. Jakes that says “Don’t put a period where God put a comma.” I know this to be true because resilience, courage, and an attitude of forgiveness are qualities that we all have but often resist. For me, adversity has taught me to embrace them as they serve as a reminder that when life gets difficult (due to domestic violence, natural disasters, disappointment, or otherwise) – it’s not a period, just a comma. That is my truth.
Living with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria has caused me to look at life from a more conscious perspective. The morning after the hurricane everything looked like an atomic bomb had fallen. The fruit trees on my property were torn out from the ground exposing roots; debris from fallen trees and branches were scattered in unusual places; all plant life looked brown and dead. The privacy that was created from the lush foliage was now transformed into a barren wasteland. It was so shocking that I just stared at it in disbelief thinking, “how will we get past this nightmare?” Little did I know that those feelings would seem inconsequential after hearing that my 25-year-old son with Autism had unexpectedly died! Upon hearing the news, I immediately felt like I could not breathe and unable to stand on my own. All I felt was numbness!! I’m trying to rationalize the meaning of these losses. “For me, it feels like I’m climbing a steep and monumental hill while gasping for air.”
Now, it’s been over two and a half months since the hurricane wrecked the islands and one month since my son passed. As the days unfold, I’m learning resilience comes from working through the pain and anguish and understanding the importance of breathing deeply for air, especially when the tears seem endless. As I practice coping skills, I can navigate through some of the sadness and lessen negative stimuli. Gazing from my window, I notice a transformation happening around me. There are green leaves sprouting and filling in the brown patches of grass. I notice the ocean has regained its calmness and vibrant hue. And the birds are once again congregating in my yard. It’s a humbling sight that brings me a sense of peace.
This is not intended to be an overnight process – I just have to remember to be vigilant and allow this process to happen naturally. The lessons I am learning I have been able to translate into my work at DVSAC and inevitability, they help my coworkers and other individuals looking for help as loss is an inevitable part of life that comes in many forms. It can make us more susceptible to stress, depression, anxiety, and a host of other health illnesses if unaddressed but if we can practice coping skills – we can learn valuable lessons about our own resilience. In the midst of loss, I am still thankful for my family members, friends, and staff who continue to be supportive by providing a space for me to express those vulnerable moments.
I spent Hurricane Irma at a shelter at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses on St. Thomas and was relatively calm because that place is built like a bunker. The morning after was the first time that I saw some of the devastation that had taken place, but every morning we would begin the day with a daily text and other scriptural encouragement. The full impact did not hit me until two days later when I had a longing to see the rest of my family (we had sheltered the hurricane at different locations) and I broke down during morning worship. My challenge was keeping calm and not allowing my anxiety to get the better of me – you see, I suffer from anxiety and depression.
Since I was not able to continue my usual work as an Outreach Worker (i.e. presenting in schools and for organizations that were now closed), I decided that I wanted to spend my time helping others. I helped the Family Resource Center, the only domestic violence and sexual assault shelter and counseling center on St. Thomas/St. John, and other agencies to distribute food, water, and clothes in the community. That was my saving grace! It got me out the house, got me talking to other people, and no matter how hard I worked, I felt good and fulfilled.
I am Lynette Magras. I am a Community Outreach Specialist for DVSAC and until recently, when I lost my entire home to Hurricane Irma, I lived on St. John – my birth place and my home… When I started this job it was an eye opener as what I thought was just ‘a part of growing up’ I came to realize… was not. No one should have to see what I saw or go through what I went through as a child so I promised myself that I would always do my best to ‘break the cycle’ that goes on in our community by making sure that my home had the help that it needed. It is a hard journey though because my community is small – everybody knows everybody and no one wants to speak up, but I have seen some changes and I am praying that it continues.
Aside from work, my personal challenge is re-building my home which I lost during Hurricane Irma. However, my inspiration comes from my family and my “sisters” – not by blood but by FAITH, LOVE, AND HOPE. When I need encouragement, support, or just someone to talk to or a shoulder to cry on, my “sisters” are available. Most of my help and all of my strength comes from ‘the one’ who controls all though – MY GOD! With him, I am taking one step at a time and I know that all will be well.
After the storm, it’s been a challenge for me as I haven’t been able to grieve the loss of my mother who passed just before the hurricanes. Also, the displacement of the DVSAC office, the damages to my home, and not having a vehicle to go to work has been stressful. For starters, I had to go back to handwriting checks for payroll as well as vendors and I’ve had to rent a car to access local payroll tax offices to get copies of the last few payments made so that I can prepare the 3rd quarter reports – so our usual way of life, even for work, has been interrupted. I’m so happy, however, that the Executive Director was able to find a temporary office for our staff to work from.
What has inspired me to move forward is the assistance that we’ve gotten to survive such a disaster and the support that our staff shares. After all, DVSAC’s work must continue in one way or another despite the natural disasters because we have to assist people in need.
About Darlene: As a Community Outreach Specialist, a large part of my job is working with the schools to give presentations to our students, but with the hurricane, it has been hard. After the storm, schools were closed for almost two months and now that they are open again, they are working with a split session which means that I have double presentations starting earlier and finishing later in the day – this is tiring some days. Since our office was damaged, it also means that I have less items to give away and less resources to share – and the students look forward to that.
Aside from work, I am also the main caregiver for my sibling who suffers from a mental health diagnosis – this means that on many days, I have to stop what I’m doing and attend to him since there is nowhere else for him to go. I love my brother and it hurts me to see when he’s not well, and he’s my family so I have to be there for him. What encourages me to keep doing the work, even when my mind is stressed with my brother and other things, is the impact that I have on the students. Sometimes, I’m walking in the community and a student shouts “Ms. Springer!” and they remember me from coming to their school. Even last week, the students reminded me of a presentation that I made – they even told me what I was wearing. I had to pause because I was touched that they remembered the information and they remembered me too. This is what keeps me going because I know that I am making a difference.
What is it like to do domestic violence work in the U.S. Virgin Islands?
Working in the domestic violence field anywhere is challenging, but working in the field from a U.S. Territory that is often forgotten (until vacation plans arise!) is difficult. Further, doing the work on small islands where families are familiar and truth is often mistaken for ‘dishonoring the family,’ makes the work twice as challenging. Nonetheless, the weaknesses of our islands are also our strengths:
- We are a ‘tight knit’ community: This is great when use our connectedness to have a coordinated response to domestic violence but it is challenging when connectedness (through friendship, relation, or otherwise) overrides professionalism and integrity.
- We live in a laid back, relaxing environment: This is rewarding especially when we incorporate our natural environment into the healing process for survivors (I.e. group sessions on the beach, extended counseling sessions that are not rushed, etc.) but it is challenging when we use this environment as an excuse to be lackadaisical with survivor’s cases or to engage in gossip at work.
- We can skip ‘the process’: This is helpful when a case is not moving expeditiously and we happen to know the person ‘at the top’ and see an immediate shift by making a simple phone call (because we’ve probably had dinner with them or their children are playmates with ours, for example) but it is not helpful when relationships are used to hinder progress and block services for survivors or agencies who are working to help survivors too.
- We live in a ‘fearful’ community: The Virgin Islands is both a religious and spiritual community and this is a strength because we use our faith to ‘bounce back’ from trauma but there is a thin line between fear of doing wrong and fear of speaking up against wrong because we often ‘leave it to Jesus’ to resolve community problems instead of recognizing our own strength and ability to intervene and resolve them ourselves. In other words, we often hear “someone needs to… or the government needs to” instead of “I am going to… or let us do…”
What impact does your unique U.S. Virgin Islands context have on this work?
The U.S. Virgin Islands is in a unique space to talk about oppression, particularly racism, as our experiences and landscape for equality are very different from the mainland. For example, the U.S. Virgin Islands is predominantly Black, then Hispanic. Our Administration – particularly the Governor and all Senators – are either Black or Hispanic. Likewise, most of our doctors, principals/teachers, and non-profit leaders are Black or Hispanic. As a result, we often approach our work through a culturally-specific lens (whether we know it or not) and could serve as a leader and/or resource for other communities and agencies that want to do the same. Further, we can serve as the largest allies for our Women and Men of Color on the mainland who are subjected to racial discrimination on a daily basis and are unable to experience life ‘as the majority’ as a result. Though it would require a greater understanding of being Black in America (by Virgin Islanders/Afro-Caribbean people) and being Black in the Virgin Islands (by African- Americans), there is a unique opportunity for learning, sharing, and evolving as a race when living in the U.S. Virgin Islands (and overall Caribbean) that isn’t always available on the mainland.
What are the biggest barriers that survivors face in the U.S. Virgin Islands?
Confidentiality, sensitivity, and choices are the greatest barriers that survivors face in the U.S. Virgin Islands. From a systems perspective, confidentiality and choices are ongoing, rampant issues that are barriers for survivors. As mentioned before, everyone knows everyone so there is always a concern about confidentiality as simply visiting a police station or speaking to an advocate can stir conversations about being a victim of domestic violence. However, the fact that there is only one agency on each island – for direct services, law enforcement (we have different command stations but not different counties as each island is considered a ‘county’), pro bono legal services, etc. is a barrier because it limits the choices of victims seeking help and in some cases, prevents victims from seeking help altogether.
From a community perspective, sensitivity is a barrier as most community members ‘mean well’ when responding to domestic violence but they don’t always ‘do well.’ For example, many family members/friends of victims have expressed that they are aware and concerned for a loved one and in response, they say something to the effect of ‘I told her that if she leaves or calls the police, she can stay with me but if not, she’s on her own.’ In most cases, the families/friends feel that they are providing an option and extending help, but the reality is, if they are the only ‘community’ that the victim has (especially since they already lack choices for services and may opt out of that altogether), they are isolating the victim and forcing them into yet, another controlling situation where they feel forced to make decisions that they may not want. Sensitivity, had it been present, would have encouraged the family/friends to consider saying something like “I’m here for you regardless,” “I want to help you,” and/or “I can accompany you to an agency for help if you like,” thus building community instead of breaking it down.
Lastly, another issue that may not be ‘the biggest barrier’ but is certainly arising is that of domestic violence/sexual assault victims who also have mental health challenges/diagnoses. Because our Territory only has one hospital per island and one department of health (lack of choices!), and of them, neither have a fully-functioning mental health facility or financial resources for medications, options are limited for individuals who require this service. Likewise, because our direct service providers are not mental health facilities, they are not equipped to assist survivors with their healthcare needs (aside from referrals to the non-functioning hospitals). Even so, the lack of sensitivity towards this population extends from the community to service providers as well. In fact, DVSAC contacted an agency just two weeks ago about providing assistance for a DV/SA survivor who is homeless (the only homeless shelter on the island was damaged and is closed) and appears to have a mental health condition (we say ‘appear’ as most DV agencies do not house psychiatrists with a license to diagnose) and we were told, “she is mentally ill – we are not helping her.” This was the response of the one agency that could offer some relief but due to lack of confidentiality (as information was shared with us on the call), sensitivity (the lack thereof triggered the response that we received), and choices (where else can this survivor go?), necessities such as housing, medication, and financial resources were either not available or not provided. *Fortunately, the DVSAC staff believes the victim. We have been able to provide food and have since reached out to family members and other agencies that have intersected with her for help. We are hopeful that with kindness and persistence we can help this survivor regardless of her mental state. This is why we feature our staff!*
What’s happening in the U.S. Virgin Islands that you’re excited about? Proud of?
DVSAC is excited about our progress as a Territorial Coalition as our work in the community has earned us the Daily News Voter’s Choice for ‘2017 Best Nonprofit of the Year’ in St. Croix and St. Thomas/St. John as well as the cover of the Daily News 2017 Women Today magazine (image below). However, a few initiatives that truly represent our agency are our Territorial SART and our Engaging Men Campaign. Because of the journey with starting the SART, we are pleased that it has found a steady momentum and as a result, we have been able to implement simple yet critical changes like Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) trainings, safe spaces/private entrances for survivors at the local hospital and improved coordinated response for cases. For more history on our SART, please check out this blog link: https://www.sane-sart.com/the-value-of-persistence/
In addition to the SART, DVSAC is excited about our Engaging Men campaign as it has triggered an increase in volunteerism from men in our community but has also opened conversations about men engaging men in the work. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, where there is such an emphasis on family, it is critical for us to include everyone in our movement – our Engaging Men campaign has been an avenue to do just that! To see our Engaging Men PSA featuring the Executive Director of the Men’s Coalition (Batterer Intervention Program), PREA Coordinator for the Bureau of Corrections and SHARP Coordinator for the V.I. National Guard (Sexual Assault Victim Advocate), see here: https://vimeo.com/216848410
Are there any champions in the U.S. Virgin Islands that whom you’d like to thank or celebrate for their record or work on domestic violence?
Yes, the DVSAC staff are our champions and we honor them through this spotlight! (*See statements from staff above about their experience after a natural disaster with personal and professional challenges and how they overcome them!*)
How is DVSAC working to end domestic violence?
DVSAC is working to end domestic violence through a multiplicity of avenues including but not limited to:
- Faith-Based Committee: Known for adapting the World Council of Churches ‘Thursdays in Black’ Campaign; hosting the ‘Faith Intervention’ Radio Show, and Presenting at NSAC 2015/2016
- Criminal Justice Committee: Known for our People’s Court Watch Program – DVSAC’s only avenue to witness and track survivor stories through the criminal justice system; Family Court Training with Magistrates, Judges and Court staff on risk assessments and human trafficking
- Social Media Presence: Known through revamped website (vidvsac.org) and regularly updated social media sites (Facebook: www.facebook.com/vidvsac and Instagram: www.instagram.com/vidvsac ) on local and national issues
- Engaging Men Campaign: *See Above*
- Healthy Relationships Campaign: Known through University MOU
- A.M. Fund: Established with the Magras family of St. Thomas in honor of Jeanette Ann Magras, a murdered victim whose commemorative fund benefits the children of survivors.
In addition to the community programs and initiatives that we host, the staff of DVSAC is very much committed to ending violence by addressing organizational violence as well. This means that we recognize that before we can end violence in the community we have to evaluate the ways in which we may be exhibit violent-prone behaviors and attitudes. Therefore, we are committed to speaking truth within our agency and addressing them as staff while also speaking our truth about agencies and individuals who may be abusive or negative towards us. Further, we are committed to working on ourselves, not just as staff but as individuals, so we can ensure that we follow the advice of our own Healthy Relationships campaign which states: “A Healthy Relationship begins with me!”
If DVSAC was a musician or music group, who would you be and why?
If DVSAC were a musician or group, we’d be a culmination of all artists as the core of being an artist is being expressive, speaking truth, and creating a line of communication that transcends words or actions but also feeling. However, if we must choose one we’d choose Bob Marley whose music has left an impact on people of all races and backgrounds and speaks to the basic human rights of love, freedom, and justice among others. Likewise, he is a powerful and legendary Black man from the Caribbean as our agency is representative of powerful and legendary Black and Hispanic women from the Caribbean.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? Anything we didn’t ask that you’d like to share?
Thank you so much for this feature – we are appreciative for the opportunity to share insight on life in the Virgin Islands which we do while keeping our fellow Territory family from Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and Saipan in mind!
Learn more about DVSAC: