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How advocacy programs help domestic violence victims who are deaf

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OCEAN CITY — The statistics on domestic abuse of women are sobering: Nearly one in three women will be abused. For one in four women, that physical abuse is severe.

And for women with disabilities, all those odds increase by 1.5 times.

As a deaf woman, Annmarie Buraczeski has been on the losing side of those odds — not once, but twice.

Rather than give in to the abuse, Buraczeski and her friend Michelle Cline, who is also deaf, were led by Buraczeski’s experiences to start the Deaf Advocate Project for domestic violence victims three years ago with the help of Womanspace.

“We didn’t want to see deaf women going back to their abusers,” said Buraczeski, 55.

While targeted programs for victims of domestic violence do exist, experts say more are needed to curb incidents of domestic violence.

“The research shows that for the deaf, one out of every two persons will experience some type of domestic violence at some point in their life,” said Cline, 44, of Bloomingdale. “Often it’s not reported.”

It took Buraczeski being rushed to the hospital after a boyfriend, who was also deaf, beat her up before she made her first police report.

It was a very hot summer night about 29 years ago, she recalled, and the house had no air conditioning. Her 18-month-old son was sleeping in the next room and her then-boyfriend, who is her son’s father, became angry — although it was far from the first time.

“And for whatever reason, he really started to beat me up,” she said.

He threw her in a closet and then onto the bed, she said.

“And I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I might not live to see my baby grow up,’” Buraczeski said. “You know how women talk about they remember labor and delivery? Well I remember the pain of getting beaten up.”

Bruised and bleeding, Buraczeski said a prayer to herself before she blacked out. She awoke at the hospital emergency room, where she was peppered with questions she wasn’t able to answer on her own, due to her deafness. She saw her boyfriend holding their son, and she couldn’t explain that he was in danger, she said.

“Communication was so challenging, there wasn’t a sign language interpreter. There was nobody within the hospital system that knew how to sign. It was just a double mess on top of a mess,” Buraczeski said.

About 850,000 of New Jersey’s 8.9 million residents have varying degrees of hearing loss, according to the state Department of Human Services. The National Domestic Violence Hotline says people who are deaf or hard of hearing are 1.5 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence.

Although several technological advances over the years are helping victims who are deaf communicate with the hearing, people who are deaf still face communication barriers.

“The hearing person takes advantage of their privileges that will then affect or influence the power or control. The police arrive to the scene and then you’re looking for the person who is able to speak, rather than the person who made the call for help,” Cline said.

Buraczeski knows that experience firsthand. After she left her first abusive relationship, she found herself in another, she said. The man, whom she eventually married, was hearing, but knew how to sign.

“What he would do is talk to my son without signing to him, so I would be left out of the conversation,” Buraczeski said.

One night, she came home from work late and made TV dinners for herself and her husband.

“And then he threw it on my face, and you can imagine how hot it was,” she said. “He came up to me and then he started to shake me.”

When he was done, Buraczeski called 911 via TTY communication device. When police arrived, her now ex-husband tried to speak with them and take control of the situation, she said.

“The abuse was a horrible thing to go through — no ifs, ands or buts about that — but the inability to be able to access communication or have domestic violence services provided to me was even more of a horrific situation,” she said.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence’s annual 24-hour census shows domestic violence hotlines are a lifeline for victims, but limited resources and services marginalize underserved victims including immigrants, LBGTQ people and people with disabilities.

“Survivors who are elderly, dependent upon someone else because of a disability, or have children with a disability may face additional barriers,” the 2016 census report states.

There is good news. Nationally, deaf advocacy programs for victims of domestic violence are expanding their reach. In March, the Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services extended its national hotline from five days a week to a 24/7 service.

In January, the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women announced a $500,000 award to the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center for Victimization and Safety to create a plan to establish a National Deaf Service Line that will enable deaf victims to communicate directly with a deaf advocate via video phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This summer, the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence expanded the Deaf Advocate Project and hired coordinator Lisa Oshman to recruit, train and dispatch deaf advocates to victims around the state.

Buraczeski said she hopes the program helps others get the help she struggled to find.

“I would like to think that it would have been an easier time for me to go through my situation if there were programs available to me and resources,” she said.



Twitter @clairelowe

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.