With New York legalizing gay marriage, more and more children will be exposed to same-sex couples (much to the chagrin of conservatives). Here is great video of one little boy's reaction to seeing his first gay couple -- watch how he figures things out:


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Covenant House ‘Sleep Out’ Raises Awareness of Largely Invisible Issue: Youth Homelessness

Through the journey of two young women we can learn more about this largely invisible issue, how programs like the Covenant House empower youth to take control of their lives, and how we—those of us more fortunate—can help.

Last Thursday night, a couple hundred people donned special sleeping bags called “empowerment coats” and volunteered to sleep on the street in New York City and in 15 other cities to raise awareness of youth homelessness. At 41st and 10th Avenue, there was a multiple Tony Award winner who sang an Irish lullaby beforehand. There was the general manager of the New York Yankees. There was a representative from the NBA. There was wind, rain, and unseasonable warmth. But the stars were Covenant House and their youth clientele.

None of us can control the circumstances of our births. The where, when, and why we have nothing to do with; good and bad life circumstances are more like luck. This becomes especially clear when looking at the issues surrounding youth homelessness. Through the journey of two young women we can learn more about this largely invisible issue, how programs like the Covenant House empower youth to take control of their lives, and how those of us more fortunate can help.

It’s hard to tell just how many homeless youth there are. Some organizations have estimated the number at about 1.7 million, while others estimate more than two million. For youth, the very definition of “homeless” is nebulous. By the time a kid gets to the Covenant House, or “The Cov,” they may have been couch surfing at different friend’s homes, train hopping at night, in and out of shelters and other facilities, or any combination of those for years. There’s also the runaway/throwaway factor. Many youth may live in an undeniably dangerous situation, such as with a family member who rejects their identity, and decide themselves to leave as opposed to being thrown out. About 40 percent of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Other factors that contribute to homelessness include family financial stress, mental health or substance abuse issues, and child abuse or neglect. Whatever the circumstance, unfortunately, there will always be a certain percentage of youth who’ve been forced to leave their birth homes.

Ineja, 20, and Ashley, 19, are two bright and precocious young women. A future pediatrician and child psychologist, respectively, they look to each other to finish sentences and call each other best friends. Ashley despises curfew and Ineja, originally from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, still doesn’t feel totally safe in New York. They’re each looking for appropriate college programs to suit them academically.

Ashley’s journey to “The Cov” began early by way of the foster care system. She moved around from place to place until high school, when she got focused on ending the cycle herself. She saved for an apartment not too long ago. Inviting a cousin to stay with her—not knowing about the drugs and crowd he’d bring with him—proved a bad move, and after being evicted and googling youth shelters, she landed at Covenant House. “My first day here was challenging. I didn’t know anything about ‘The Cov,’” she told RH Reality Check.

“I was one of six girls in my family,” Ineja said in an interview with RHRC. “Growing up was really hard. My stepfather was an extreme alcoholic and he became very violent. Once the courts dealt with him, we were house hopping. I was like a second mom to my little sisters … working and going to high school at the same time, and helping to pay rent and electricity. There were times we ate cereal three times a day. My mom eventually said I was getting too old, so she gave me 30 days to leave. I was working at Burger King making $7.25 an hour. That’s not a lot. A friend of mine at Burger King had a friend at Covenant House. So with that last Burger King paycheck, I took Amtrak to Covenant House.”

With 27 locations across the United States, Latin America, and Canada, Covenant House helps about 60,000 homeless young people per year to achieve any number of their own academic, professional, and health care goals. The Covenant House model emphasizes education, hard work, and working through consequences after bad decisions.

“It’s definitely our young people who actually do the work [at Covenant House]. We want to make sure as many of our young people as possible get a credential, get a diploma, get certified in a trade, go to college so they can aspire to that livable wage,” said Andre Ford, the educational/vocational training manager at Covenant House. “Not to get too wonky, but it’s proven over and over again that the more educated a young person is, it significantly decreases the possibility that they will be homeless again,” he told RHRC.

Renata Alexis started as a volunteer at Covenant House 18 years ago, when she says she was young and needed a job. She is now the deputy director for the shelter program. “For the past seven-and-a-half, most eight years I’ve been working at the mother and child program. To come in every day and see not just the young person, but a young person who they’re carrying behind them, or is pregnant with and struggling to bring a child into the world, wanting the best for who they’re bringing into the world—it’s emotional,” Alexis said. “It’s amazing. It’s strength that I never had that I don’t know if I’d have if I was in their same predicament.”

The Covenant House Mother/Child program offers services to homeless pregnant women and mothers with young children. The program focuses on securing permanent housing, health care, clinical counseling, employment and training, and parenting skills. It also provides a full-service nursery for parents attending school.

“For [young people] to allow us to help them, is a testament to everybody that’s here,” Alexis said. “When does helping start? It starts when there’s a call, ‘Do you have a bed?’ That tone, that response from the administrative staff, the security guard who answers the phone, just explaining how the program works, allowing us to start that process to help them become independent, stable, contributing members of society. It never gets old. Everyone has something unique and special to bring to the table.”

Before the event last Thursday, named the Covenant House Sleep Out Executive Edition, fundraisers raised $1.4 million. It costs Covenant House on average $1,000 per person to provide food, clothing, shelter, effective clinical counseling, job training, educational programs, and life skills programs at the New York shelter.

As for Ineja and Ashley, they’re getting guidance, skills, education, and safety. They’re also ready to pay it forward. “From 4 to 7 I was in one home. Then I started being moved around. I didn’t have parents [to look to for help],” said Ashley. “I didn’t have siblings. Nobody. The reason I chose my career and the age group I want to work with—7 to 17—that’s the age when you need someone to help you decide what you want to do in your life. I didn’t have anybody there. The only people I have are at ‘The Cov’ and I appreciate it so greatly. I want to be that person for someone else.”

Both young ladies have a maturity way beyond their years. They both seem to have this phase in their lives in perspective. “I graduated from the job readiness program. So now I’m working with my case worker on getting scholarships,” Ineja said. “I want to work with special-needs children.”

And they seem to have a very sunny outlook on their work at “The Cov”: “It turned out to be something very positive,” Ashley said. “I’m changing my life a lot. It’s helped me face a lot of stuff. It’s helped me learn a lot about myself. Helping me to be as successful as I’m trying to be in my life.”

Image: YESNetwork / YouTube

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Talking to Your Kids About Sex Is Good for Them, So Here’s How

No one is suggesting you give a rundown of the Kama Sutra to your middle schooler. In fact, the truth is these conversations are rarely about sexual behavior.

Talking to your kids about sex can be an awkward or intimidating prospect—but new research confirms that it’s very important to do so anyway. Kids whose parents braved these conversations are more likely to practice safer sex, which means they are less likely to face an unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection (STI).

The meta-analysis, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined 52 studies, spanning 30 years and covering over 25,000 adolescents. It found a “significant positive association between parent-adolescent sexual communication and safer sex behavior among youth. This effect was robust across use of condoms and contraceptives, cross-sectional and longitudinal studies, and younger and older samples.”

In plain language, that means that kids who talked with their parents about sex were more likely to use condoms and other contraceptive methods when they became sexually active.

There are a few caveats. The results were stronger for girls than for boys, and stronger when the parent involved in the conversation was the mother rather than the father. The authors point out, however, that these results may say more about the biases in how we behave rather than the actual limitations of parental communication. The research suggests that moms are more likely than dads to have the conversation (and more studies look at mother-child communication than father-child), and the way we address girls and boys about sex may be different based on societal concerns.

The takeaway from this study is pretty simple, however: Talking to your kids about sex will protect them. Moms and dads should be talking to sons and daughters.

But if this sounds at all intimidating, here are some tips to get you going from my experience as a sexual educator and a mom.

It’s Usually Not About Sexual Behavior

The biggest barrier to parent-child communication may be a misunderstanding of what these conversations are going to entail. The idea of talking to your own child about intimate bedroom details is likely off-putting. But no one is suggesting you give a rundown of the Kama Sutra to your middle schooler. In fact, the truth is these conversations are rarely about sexual behavior.

They’re about bodies, health, relationships, and values. When children are young, you’re talking about who has what body parts, what we should call them, why we don’t show most people our penises or vulvas, and how babies are made. These conversations not only educate kids when they’re little, but can also be a good entry point into more explicit conversations as adolescents grow into teenagers. As they age, you’ll need to talk about puberty and how their bodies will change and hormones will take over their once-rational brains. Discussions about STIs, unintended pregnancies, and how to avoid them are also important, as are talks about what makes a relationship valuable and when the correct age is to start dating and have sex.

It’s Not a One-Time Thing

Parents should stop thinking about the awkward “birds and the bees” talk, which probably came too late anyhow, as the start and end to all conversations about sex. Instead, think of sex as one of the many topics that you discuss with your kids any time it happens to come up. If a friend’s mom is pregnant, you can tell your preschooler that the baby isn’t in her tummy (and she didn’t swallow it), it’s in her uterus. If your six-year-old isn’t doing a good job wiping after going to the bathroom you can point out that it’s important to keep our genitals clean, like we do any other part of our body. If you’re 10-year-old just made a new friend who has two dads talk about same-sex relationships, and if she asks how you can be born if you have two dads go ahead and discuss adoption and surrogate mothers. When your 14 year-old finds out that his crush has a crush on his teammate, you can talk about heartbreak and how the key to a good relationship is to find someone who really does like you back. 

Television is also a fabulous entry for giving information. Shows made for young people constantly portray relationship drama and at least hint at sex. Use the latest plotline to give your opinion. Ask if they think the CW hotties were using condoms, or if the Teen Moms are making young parenting look too glamourous.

Commercials work too. My 9-year-old and I watch a lot of HGTV. Though the shows are fine for audiences at any age, in the last few weeks I have had to explain erections lasting more than four hours and vaginal dryness, thanks to advertisers.

They’re Not Too Young

There is no reason that my 9-year-old needs to know about erectile dysfunction or lubrication after menopause, which won’t affect her for years, but there’s also no reason for me not to answer her questions and there are age-appropriate ways to discuss almost everything.

The first time we discussed contraception, for example, she was only 4 years old. We’d left her new baby sister at home with Nana and gone to town to pick up dinner. We ran into a woman who told us she had five kids. My daughter panicked (one baby sister was clearly enough) and asked if I was going to have more. I said no. She wanted to know how I knew that. So, I reminded her of the conversation we’d had when I told her I was pregnant and about the sperm and the egg, and then simply explained that I took a medicine that meant I didn’t make any eggs. She was relieved.

I think it’s important to note that she may have known about the pill at that point, but I had yet to tell her about vaginal intercourse. When we talked about how I got pregnant, she never asked how the sperm got to the egg, so I didn’t bother telling her. There’s no need to get all the information out at once, lest you overwhelm them or think some answers may be too complicated or explicit. In fact, it can be best to answer only those questions asked, and add only if your kid asks more. As I mentioned, most of the conversations aren’t about sex itself.

Starting young is great because then you can use each conversation as a building block for the next. By the time I was explaining what the Cialis commercial was about to my daughter we had already gone over the fact that penises get hard during sex. (Of course, I still had no explanation for why a long-lasting erection is okay at three hours and 58 minutes but needs immediate medical attention at four hours, or why the people are in separate bathtubs on a mountaintop.)

Give the Information Out Slowly

The building-blocks approach is also helpful because it means you don’t have to give too much information at one time. Regardless of age, kids glaze over after just a little while. Most of the time a simple and direct answer to a question is best; if the kid wants more information, he’ll ask for it.

If you’re asked what herpes is after a Valtrex commercial airs, you don’t have to go into a long discussion of cold sores or the difference between a virus and bacteria. All you have to say is that there are some infections that can be spread when people have sex, that these are called STIs, and that’s why it’s important to protect yourself. Then wait for questions. Depending on the child’s age and curiosity level, that may be enough. If it’s not, answer the next question and the next as simply as you can.

This way you don’t overwhelm your child or give more information than he or she can handle. More importantly, though, you establish yourself as someone who is willing to answer questions, so that as they get older and the questions become more complicated and more personal, you will be the go-to resources instead of the less trustworthy Internet or friends.

They’re Not Too Old

One of the good things the JAMA study showed is that kids listen to their parents even as they get older, which means that we have the opportunity to keep talking after they’re already having sex. These conversations can be awkward but they are a great opportunity to give more information and all-important relationship advice. I recently did a condom demonstration via Facetime for a friend’s teenager because my friend and I were worried that she was not using them correctly. And when she mentioned during that discussion that her partner had suggested taking the condom off completely on the grounds that it would “feel better”—we got to talk a little about why that was a bad idea and how to tell him it wasn’t going to fly.

Don’t worry if you haven’t had any conversations yet. No matter how old your children are, you can start talking today.

You Don’t Have to Know (or Share) Everything

The last piece of encouragement I will add is that nobody expects you to know everything, get it all right, or be perfectly comfortable. If you’re asked an informational question that you don’t know the answer to, offer to look it up on the Internet and share what you learn. My kids ask me science questions all the time—things I probably once knew about the Earth’s rotation or how our eyes really see colors—and I have to admit I have no idea. So I look it up and tell them later. Just be sure to follow through.

If you flub an answer or get caught off-guard, just keep going. When my oldest finally asked how the sperm got to the egg, and I did have to explain vaginal intercourse, I giggled. A lot. But I finished my explanation and answered her questions.

As for the scariest part of talking about sex—sharing details of your own sex life—that’s a personal decision. You can share when you think they’re ready, or if you think a story from your own life will help them in theirs. Or, you can tell them that you’d rather keep those details to yourself, but you’re happy to answer their questions in a more general way.

For now, all my kids know is what they’ve been able to piece together from our talks on reproduction—Daddy and I did that twice. Someday that will change but we’re taking it slow.

Image: Shutterstock

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As SCOTUS Steps Into Fight Over Clinic Closure Laws, Another Appeals Court Rules They Should Be Blocked

Monday's decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals made a forceful case to the Roberts Court to block a similar Texas measure under consideration. Let's hope the justices read the opinion.

Just over a week after the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would step into the fight over clinic closure laws that have been allowed to take effect in Texas, a federal appeals court ruled a similar Wisconsin law should remain blocked permanently.

Judge Richard Posner wrote the decision for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirming U.S. District Court Judge William Conley’s March decision that Act 37, which mandates that doctors providing abortions in Wisconsin have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital or face felony charges, would place an undue burden on women’s access to safe and legal abortion and should be permanently blocked. Gov. Scott Walker signed Act 37 into law on July 5, 2013. It required providers to have privileges in place by July 8, giving them a mere three days to comply.

Posner, in his decision, did not just rake the Walker administration over the coals for its brazenly political attempts to cut out legal abortion in the state. Posner is also speaking directly to the justices of the U. S. Supreme Court who will soon hear arguments over a similar provision in Texas. The justices are also, for some undisclosed reason, still sitting on Jackson v. Currier, the case where Mississippi argued it should be able to close its only clinic in the state because patients could always travel to Alabama, Arkansas, or Louisiana to get an abortion. You know, neighboring states where abortion access is apparently as free as the wind.

The three-judge panel on Monday affirmed Conley’s ruing that the law does not enhance patient safety and would impose an undue burden on women seeking abortion care. “Opponents of abortion reveal their true objectives when they procure legislation limited to a medical procedure—abortion—that rarely produces a medical emergency,” Posner wrote.

Only four health centers provide abortion in Wisconsin, and only one of those performs abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation. If this law were permitted to take effect, one of those health centers would be forced to close immediately, and the remaining three will not be able to absorb the unmet need, the court found. This could delay procedures by up to ten weeks, forcing abortions later in pregnancy or preventing women from having one at all.

Attorneys for the State of Wisconsin argued any uptick in later abortions could be absorbed by clinics in neighboring Chicago. Attorneys for the State of Mississippi made a similar argument when defending the admitting privileges requirement designed to close the only remaining abortion provider in the state. When summing up Wisconsin’s arguments in his decision, Judge Posner perfectly captured the contempt anti-choice lawmakers must feel toward their constituents who need reproductive health care: “No problem, argues the state, since Chicago is only 90 miles from Milwaukee, and there is at least one clinic in Chicago that will perform abortions after 19 weeks.”

It is a shockingly callous—not to mention unconstitutional—argument for states like Wisconsin to make: that they can pass off to neighboring states the responsibility to make sure their own residents can exercise their fundamental civil rights. Of course it is a problem, which is what makes Posner summarizing the Walker administration as shrugging its shoulders while it forces patients into increasingly out-of-reach procedures all the more of an indictment of Wisconsin lawmakers.

Forcing patients to travel to access their rights is not just a constitutional problem either, Posner noted in the opinion. “It’s also true,” Posner wrote, “that a 90-mile trip is no big deal for persons who own a car or can afford an Amtrak or Greyhound ticket. But more than 50 percent of Wisconsin women seeking abortions have incomes below the federal poverty line and many of them live in Milwaukee (and some north or west of that city and so even farther away from Chicago).”

Posner continued, “For them a round trip to Chicago, and finding a place to stay overnight in Chicago should they not feel up to an immediate return to Wisconsin after the abortion, may be prohibitively expensive. The State of Wisconsin is not offering to pick up the tab, or any part of it.”

As Posner’s opinion detailed, contrary to “no problem” arguments the state’s attorneys made defending the law, this is very much a problem. “These women may also be unable to take the time required for the round trip away from their work or the care of their children,” Posner wrote. “The evidence at trial, credited by the district judge, was that 18 to 24 percent of women who would need to travel to Chicago or the surrounding area for an abortion would be unable to make the trip.”

In other words, nearly a quarter of the patients who would be forced to travel out-of-state should the admitting privileges law take effect would simply not be able to access the abortion care they need. That is not some intellectualized “undue burden”; it is a very real crisis for fundamental human rights.

Monday’s opinion, though, is at its best when it directly takes on the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals judges who upheld Texas’ admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements. “A great many Americans, including a number of judges, legislators, governors, and civil servants, are passionately opposed to abortion—as they are entitled to be,” the opinion stated. “But persons who have a sophisticated understanding of the law and of the Supreme Court know that convincing the Court to overrule Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey is a steep uphill fight, and so some of them proceed indirectly, seeking to discourage abortions by making it more difficult for women to obtain them,” Posner wrote.

“They may do this in the name of protecting the health of women who have abortions, yet as in this case the specific measures they support may do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion. This is true of the Texas requirement, upheld by the Fifth Circuit in the Whole Woman’s case now before the Supreme Court that abortion clinics meet the standards for ambulatory surgical centers—a requirement that if upheld will permit only 8 of Texas’s abortion clinics to remain open, out of more than 40 that existed when the law was passed,” wrote Posner.

“And comparably in our case the requirement of admitting privileges cannot be taken seriously as a measure to improve women’s health because the transfer agreements that abortion clinics make with hospitals, plus the ability to summon an ambulance by a phone call, assure the access of such women to a nearby hospital in the event of a medical emergency,” Posner wrote.

Judge Posner is done with this nonsense of even entertaining that clinic shutdown laws are about promoting patient health, y’all. He has had enough. And he did his damnedest in Monday’s opinion to make it clear to the justices of the Roberts Court they too should be finished with these nonsense laws. Let’s hope they read his opinion.

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Do U.S. Laws Protecting Abuse Survivors Help Only Women Who Are U.S. Citizens?

While there are systems in place in the United States that purport to help all women suffering from violence, what is rarely said is that these systems primarily benefit women who are citizens. Migrant women face multiple hurdles when it comes to accessing help, and U.S. immigration policies only put them in more danger.

After graduating from college in Mexico, Gina was raped by a man. Her rapist was never arrested, but she was held by the police for “defamation” after reporting the crime. Gina had no support from her family and upon her release, she was unable to find work in Mexico. At 28, she made the difficult decision to uproot the only life she knew to come to the United States.

“I decided to come here to find my ‘American dream,’ but it turned into a nightmare when I attempted to cross the border,” Gina said, referring to U.S. immigration policies that have made seeking help as an undocumented survivor of violence a “difficult, painful process.”

The United Nations General Assembly has designated November 25 as International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—violence that afflicts 70 percent of women in their lifetime, with one in three women worldwide experiencing physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner.

While there are systems in place in the United States that purport to help all women suffering from violence, what is rarely said is that these systems primarily benefit women who are citizens. Migrant women face multiple hurdles when it comes to accessing help, and U.S. immigration policies only put them in more danger.

The United States has taken a strong stance over the years in response to violence against women. September of 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and last year during October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, President Obama committed to “reaching a future free of domestic violence.”

Initially, undocumented women experiencing violence were not protected under VAWA. After a long legal battle, however, VAWA was extended in 2013 to include undocumented women. But VAWA is helpful only if the victim of domestic violence is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident. According to the Department of Homeland Security, if you are abused by a citizen or permanent resident, you may be eligible to apply for a green card without needing the abuser to file for immigration benefits. Also, a paper trail must exist and victims must establish they have or had a qualifying relationship with the abuser spouse or are the parent or child of the abuser; reside or resided with the abuser; “have good moral character”; and have been victims of battery or extreme cruelty.

Forty-eight percent of Latinas report their partner’s violence against them increases upon immigrating to the United States, according to Cristina Aguilar, executive director of the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR). These are the many women not protected by laws like VAWA. For this, and many other reasons, women like Gina are becoming their own advocates, joining grassroots organizations like COLOR to work directly in their communities and educate women about their rights, including their ability to obtain U-Visas if they or their children are experiencing violence. U-Visas are for victims of crimes (and their immediate family members) who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse and are willing to assist law enforcement and government officials in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity.

The work of women like Gina is crucial because for the estimated five million undocumented women in the United States, the fear of deportation or incarceration is real and navigating the system as an abuse survivor only compounds those fears.

We Belong Together, a campaign to “mobilize women in support of common sense immigration policies that will keep families together and empower women,” has conducted extensive research on the many ways immigration policies make an already vulnerable population—undocumented women—more susceptible to violence, abuse, and exploitation. An entire economy has been created from jailing asylum-seeking women and their infants and toddlers, most of whom have experienced gender-based violence.

Furthermore, as history shows us, undocumented women can face prolonged incarceration and deportation for contacting police to report abuse in their homes. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested Maria Calderon after she asked the Tucson police for help because her husband was beating her again. When a neighbor called the police after a domestic dispute in her home turned physical, Claudia Valdez was arrested, imprisoned, and subjected to deportation proceedings. When she escaped an abusive relationship with her daughter, Nan-Hui Jo was arrested and held without bail for nine months and then detained by ICE and subject to deportation proceedings.

As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said, stories such as these teach undocumented women not to contact the authorities even during dire situations.

Undocumented women in the United States also can become tethered to abusive partners because of employment visas. Only a quarter of all employment visas are given to women as principal holders, according to We Belong Together, which means that most immigrant women in the employment visa category are dependents on their spouse’s visa, with no authorization to work themselves, making them more vulnerable to an abusive partner.

“This is even a greater threat when there are children involved, because the abusers take advantage of the lack of documentation to inflict violence and threaten to take away our children,” Gina said. “This and many other reasons are why undocumented women are a thousand times more vulnerable to living in violent situation and not reporting them.”

Karina Alonso, a 43-year-old undocumented mother of two, shared similar sentiments with RH Reality Check. Alonso immigrated to Denver, Colorado, with her young son in tow, wanting to raise her child with her husband. Growing up in an abusive home, she recognized the signs in her own marriage. After suffering years of emotional and psychological abuse, Alonso asked her husband for a divorce.

“My husband grabbed a knife and put in on his chest, saying that if I wanted a separation, he would kill himself,” Alonso said.

When things got worse and her husband began stalking her and threatening to “destroy” her, Alonso said she was afraid to ask for help or approach a police officer because of her citizenship status. Above all else, she feared being separated from her children.

“We are afraid our husbands will get more violent if we report the violence,” Alonso said. “In my case, he was also saying that he will make me to go to jail or get deported if I wanted to divorce.”

Stories like Alonso’s are sadly common, explained Aguilar. The executive director said immigrant women might feel that they cannot leave a violent relationship because of immigration laws, language barriers, social isolation, and lack of financial resources.

“Too often immigrant and undocumented women and our families have been scared into silence. The issues of domestic and sexual violence are already shrouded in shame and secrecy. It is that much worse for women who feel isolated and scared to seek help from the authorities, because they fear being separated from their families,” Aguilar said.

Undocumented women also carry the burden of the deportation of men. According to findings from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, 93 percent of ICE deportees were men in fiscal year 2013. When the head of their household gets deported, women are left as sole providers for their families, often working in the informal economy as domestic workers or caregivers. Given that a central tenet for comprehensive immigration reform has been employment—employment in specific fields or proof of employment—We Belong Together reports that a pathway to citizenship requiring proof of employment would exclude millions of women. A survey of over 4,000 low-wage workers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles found that workers in occupations with high percentages of women did not receive pay stubs with their pay, including 98 percent of surveyed undocumented nannies, 92 percent of maids and housecleaners, and 77 percent of garment workers.

When violence against women is discussed in the United States, advocates say that immigrant and undocumented women are rarely included in those conversations. Gina said that part of the reason accessing care can be so challenging is because many advocacy groups don’t have a basic understanding of the hurdles undocumented women face.

“I think that still there is a lot work to do. I can see ads in the TV, radio, or the media [about abuse], but they’re distant to me,” Alonso said.

Gina added, “They always ask you, ‘Why don’t you call the police? Why don’t you report your husband if he hit you?’ The answer is very simple: Because I am afraid. Afraid that they might ask me for my papers, afraid that I’ll be accused of being the violent one, afraid of being deported and having my children taken away from me.” 

Also, the importance of culturally and linguistically competent care can’t be overstated, they stated. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at its best, culturally competent care should advance health equity, improve quality, and help eliminate disparities. Aguilar said there are groups providing these services, including Mujeres Latinas en Acción, an organization out of Chicago that works to provide culturally competent services to Latinas. Too many support and service programs working with survivors do not have bilingual shelters or hotlines, though. Court advocate programs may not have an interpreter available, Aguilar added, and even a woman calling 9-1-1 may encounter language barriers.

Gina told RH Reality Check most agencies don’t have a staff that is bicultural or bilingual and for women like her, that is a major problem.

“As a Mexican woman, for example, I was raised in a culture completely different from the culture of an American woman,” she said, “and it is going to be very difficult for a social worker to understand my roots and why it took me so long to report the violence or that I was so afraid of the police investigating my family.”

As Aguilar said, any program that is providing care to survivors should have a sense of the community and the different cultures represented. They should also have contacts for interpreters for people whose first language is not English. Primarily, it’s important that those enlisted to help truly understand the community they are serving.

“We need people who can understand our experiences,” Aguilar said.

“Women who are not immigrants, for the most part, do not understand the immigration system,” Gina said. “A simple phone call to the police or a traffic ticket can put you at risk of deportation.”

This was echoed by Alonso, who told RH Reality Check that not knowing her rights, not knowing the language, not having money to pay for legal assistance, and not having traditional access to the help for victims of domestic violence made her feel like she didn’t know where to start.

“In the community, many good resources exist, the problem is that people don’t know where to go or who to call when violence has been inflicted on them,” Gina said. “The problem resides in that when we are victims of violence, we are afraid of everything and we do not know what to do.”

Image: Chad Zuber / Shutterstock.com

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The #Justice4Jamar Protests Are a Reproductive Justice Issue

The media coverage and governmental responses to the protests in Minneapolis are missing the message that the community is protesting that the police shot Jamar Clark before he had his day in court as someone facing domestic violence charges.

The way the press in Minneapolis, Minnesota, initially reported the Twin Cities’ reaction to the police shooting Jamar Clark is “Black Lives Matter is acting up again—and for no good reason.” That narrative loses the message of why the community is protesting: The police shot Clark before he had his day in court as someone facing domestic violence charges.

In the rush to keep up appearances that the Twin Cities are progressive and “nice,” even as white supremacists further belied that notion by shooting five protesters on November 23, the media coverage and governmental responses are missing the fact that the protests are a reproductive justice matter.

Facts are still unfolding, but here is what has become apparent so far. In the early morning of Sunday, November 15, police and paramedics responded to a domestic violence call in North Minneapolis between Clark and his girlfriend, who lived in the area. The paramedics were giving medical treatment to the girlfriend. Clark, according to reports, tried to interfere with the her treatment. Onlookers say Clark was then handcuffed, a claim the police have denied. One of the two officers on the scene—either Mark Ringgenberg or Dustin Schwarze—allegedly shot Clark in the head. According to Clark’s father, James Hill, he was brain dead when he arrived at the hospital. His family took him off mechanical support on November 16. As of this article, Ringgenberg and Schwarze are on administrative leave.

Black Lives Matter Minneapolis (BLM-Minn) acted like a social media first responder on November 15, alerting its Facebook community of nearly 20,000 people about the shooting as members also used the platform to gather more information about the details from the people who live in the community. The chapter, along with the local NAACP, led a peaceful march and occupation of the 4th Precinct police station later on that Sunday and stated activists would stay in the building and on the property until five initial demands were met.

These demands were to see footage from the incident; for an independent organization—not the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), which is attached to Minnesota’s Department of Public Safety, also known as the police—to investigate the shooting; for the media to cover what eyewitnesses saw, not just the police’s perspective; for community oversight with full disciplinary power; and for police officers to live in the communities they serve. Thanks to laws advocated for by not only police unions, but also teachers’ unions and parents, this is not currently a requirement in Minneapolis.

On Monday, November 16, another mix of protesters—including leaders from Black Lives Matter and the local NAACP, other community organizers, and supporters—shut down Interstate 94, about a 30-minute walk from the 4th Precinct police station. Forty-three adults and eight youths were arrested, according to BLM-Minn, and they were released the next day.

Other Minneapolitans and St. Paulites who may not have been able to participate in the direct actions donated food, water, hand warmers, money, and other supplies.

And BLM-Minn ultimately boiled down their demands to three: a release of the footage from all of the available cameras that documented the incident on November 15, an independent federal investigation, and the immediate termination of the officers involved in Clark’s shooting.

So far, the Minneapolis Police Department refuses to release any videos from the paramedics’ vehicle, the Ames Elks Lodge across the street from where the police shot Clark, or any other cameras that could have caught the situation as it unfolded. Black Lives Matter did obtain footage from an onlooker of the cops’ treatment of Clark before the shooting. Minneapolis’ mayor, Betsy Hodges, and Minnesota’s governor, Mark Dayton, requested the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the shooting. The Hennepin County medical examiner has declared Clark’s death a homicide. The local media is slowly changing its coverage, reworking police statements and tired tropes about BLM-Minn instigating violent demonstrations to include what eyewitnesses said about the unfolding events.

In the process, the police are maintaining that the protesters are acting hostilely, if not violently, even though the videos and photos repeatedly appear to show police acting out—including lying about the protesters being paid operatives, displaying a militarized show of force to remove the protesters from the 4th Precinct, and macing protesters. Journalists and other community storytellers have been arrested for covering what’s going on.

On November 20, Black Lives Matter reported on its Facebook page that white supremacists showed up to the 4th Precinct occupation—complete with one carrying a gun—and promised to show up at a candlelight vigil later this past week. The majority of the Minneapolis City Council is either silent or against Black Lives Matters’ demands, as of this writing.

Those are the facts so far.

As Black Lives Matter leaders and supporters have said locally and nationally, the police are killing Black people regardless of innocence or guilt. Clark was killed before he faced charges of domestic violence. The police accord the expectation to live and breathe to other people for the same crimes. Thus, the protesters and supporters feel the case should have been the same for Clark. Law enforcement, however, gave no regard to that. Constant law enforcement and extralegal threats, such as white supremacists, lessen the quality of life for individuals and for any family they want to form or have formed—a core tenet of reproductive justice.

And these threats from the cops and the racially driven citizen groups are bolstered by stereotypes about Black people, namely that Black men are only hyperviolent brutes and Black women are never victims worthy of genuine empathy. Clark’s girlfriend and sister are offered in the media as indictments of Black Lives Matter and the NAACP. Anti-BLM individuals state, under the guise of caring for Clark’s girlfriend, that BLM-Minn supporters are misguided in their protests because Clark allegedly abused his girlfriend, so, the subtle implication is that the Black women running the organizations are choosing to support the Black man over the woman. The naysayers also offer the video of Clark’s sister, Javille Burns, telling the protesters that their actions “have no goal” and are “pissing people off.” In doing so, they are essentially using her as a Trojan horse for their own racially couched arguments of BLM-Minn mindlessly defending “guilty” Black men and, more to the point, pointlessly disrupting the lives of Minnesotans to seek this unearned justice, which they perceive as “violent” even as the videos have shown the protesters staying peaceful.

Again, the protesters aren’t saying that Clark is innocent; they are saying that he didn’t deserve to die before he was able to have his day in court. Black female activists, from Ida B. Wells to Combahee River Collective members to Angela Davis, haven’t separated themselves from Black men or their defense of Black men dealing with the legal and extralegal system from their feminism. More importantly, none of the people raising these counterarguments are publicly offering help, particularly to the girlfriend they wish to use as a proof against the protests. As studies have proven, such stereotyping—like the belief that Black women don’t deserve genuine empathy—further impacts the lives of Black women as we navigate what Melissa Harris-Perry calls the “crooked room” of racism and sexism. We must deal with our familial, reproductive, sexual, and romantic lives in the midst of couched dismissal of our existences in order to serve as the so-called allies’ political counterarguments to those issues directly affecting us.

Yet, in all of this, very few in the media and government are addressing the systemic structures that allow the reproductive justice issues to fester in North Minneapolis and the state itself. That the Huffington Post and 24/7 Wall Street ranked Minneapolis-St. Paul as the third-worst city in the United States for Black Americans is, at best, met with white progressive hand-wringing and the weird double-talk that is the fine art of “Minnesota Nice.” More often than not, the reports and the statistics as to why the Twin Cities ranked so high—high unemployment, low median income, poverty rates, redlining then gentrifying communities of color, and disproportionately high rates of STIs—are met with relative silence, compared to the screaming outrage a person here sees as the reaction to the protests in North Minneapolis.  

Where reproductive justice is manifesting itself, however, is in the coalitions—which are deeper and broader than BLM-Minn and the local NAACP—that have come to support the #Justice4Jamar protests, with individuals across the racial and religious spectrums within and around North Minneapolis attending the protests and representatives from Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI), and Muslim and Arab communities, among others, coming down to show support. Mayor Betsy Hodges may have run on a “One Minneapolis” platform, but she is showing so far that it’s a platitude and not a policy with regard to this situation: She endorsed the police’s behavior, it took her a few days after the shooting to request a federal investigation, seemingly only urging from protesters, and, when confronted about her responses, replied in double-talk. But there are Minneapolitans who are actually engaging in that promise.

Image: Wall Street Journal / YouTube

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Giving Thanks and Making Commitments

Each year at Thanksgiving, I take time to remember all that I have to be thankful for, but also all the things about which I feel a personal need to remain vigilant.

Each year at Thanksgiving, I take time to remember all that I have to be thankful for, but also all the things about which I feel a personal need to remain vigilant. Being thankful is in many ways an exercise in privilege and comfort: I have a home, two healthy children, a job I love, and many, many close friends and colleagues whose work and commitment inspires me every day. I have good health and I have health insurance. I work in a field that has deep meaning for me. And I am deeply thankful—deeply grateful—for all of this and more.

More than at any other time of the year, and in the spirit of “to whom much is given, much is expected,” Thanksgiving for me is also a time to realize and reinforce my personal resolution to myself and to others. We can’t give thanks without acknowledging the external conditions that enable some of us to realize our own bounties, and without acknowledging the forces that exist to deny others those opportunities. We can’t truly give thanks without renewing our personal and communal commitments to the ongoing work of ensuring that every individual enjoys basic human rights from the time they are born throughout their lives; that every person is afforded the opportunities to succeed, however they define success; and that we each take responsibility for ending the devastation and destruction of the planet on which all life depends.

So today, I would like to do several things. First, to give thanks to the many people to whom I am grateful.

I am grateful to all of our readers and followers for their loyalty and their dedication in pushing us to continue working to be the best we can be. It is with your help that our audience has grown nearly 25 percent annually for three years in a row, helping us reach roughly eight million unique yearly readers and growing.

I am incredibly grateful to our staff, a team that includes editors, writers, and communications, fundraising, technology, financial, and administrative professionals who bring their very best to our work each and every day. I am grateful for our newest staff members, about whom you can read here. A special shout-out is warranted to the three people who have made up our core editorial team this year, Regina Mahone, Kat Jercich, and Denny Carter, each of whom works with unwavering dedication to ensure the high quality of content we produce every day.

I am deeply grateful to our financial supporters, from the largest foundations to the people who contribute $10 to our work whenever they are able. Every single one of you assists us to deliver the best possible news, analysis, commentary, and investigative reporting we can. There is no question that a free, fair, and accountable press is in danger in the United States, and with your support we have fought and will continue to fight to deliver to you independent journalism on reproductive and sexual justice, health, rights, and freedom.

I am grateful to and supported by a wonderful board of directors, all of them incredibly busy professionals who have nonetheless provided a great deal of time and energy to helping RHRC succeed.

I am awestruck and inspired every day by the people in the various communities with which I have the privilege to work, and who have helped me in countless ways.

These include the brave, brave providers of reproductive and sexual care, including independent abortion providers, staffers of Planned Parenthood, doctors, nurses, doulas, midwives, and many others who work to support and respond to the medical needs of people throughout this country, even as they remain the focus of relentless attacks and sometimes outright violence at the hands of those who want to strip people of essential health care, including but not limited to abortion care.

They also include the brilliant, dedicated members of the progressive community—far too many to count or to name—who wake up every day to fight for voting rights, environmental security, living wages, health insurance, health care, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, consumer rights, and prisoners’ rights; who fight for the rights of people of color, immigrants, undocumented persons, people with disabilities, children, and all those living in poverty; who seek to ensure that people are counted as people and corporations are held accountable legally and economically; who advance freedom of speech, freedom of association, and all the rights we enjoy but so often take for granted. These are people to whom I know I can turn at a moment’s notice for help and advice and get it without question.

Thank you all so much. You have all given me much, and I can only hope to give back a portion. In this way and others, I am so privileged.

Next, I will offer back these commitments on behalf of myself and my colleagues.

We will continue to work every day to deliver the best possible news, analysis, commentary, and investigative reporting on reproductive and sexual health, rights, and justice, because we owe that to our readers and supporters and to ourselves. As part of this commitment, we are working on big changes to our platform, a whole new site and new name, to be unveiled in March 2016, including expanded capabilities and tools. We are so excited about this, we can hardly wait!

We will work to ensure reporting on access to safe abortion care and reproductive health, and expand as well our reporting on politics and politicians, campaigns and candidates, laws, policies, and court cases. We will report on progress toward or threats to the goals of ensuring all persons have access to health care, educational opportunities, and the chance to prosper. We will report on the work of the Black Lives Matter movement, on the treatment of refugees and immigrants, and the treatment of all people needing reproductive health care. And we will continue a tradition of being self-critical to ensure that we are always doing the best we can, and improving where we need to.

And finally, we reaffirm our commitment to your comments and critiques, and to ensuring internal and external accountability to the principles that underlie our work.

Wishing you all a happy Thanksgiving!

Image: Shutterstock

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New Staff and New Directions!

Before the official start of the Thanksgiving holiday, we wanted to officially introduce the most recent additions to our growing staff, each of whom plays a key role in our mission to provide evidence-based news, commentary, analysis, and investigative reporting on reproductive and sexual health, rights, and justice.

Before the official start of the Thanksgiving holiday, we wanted to officially introduce the most recent additions to our growing staff, each of whom plays a key role in our mission to provide evidence-based news, commentary, analysis, and investigative reporting on reproductive and sexual health, rights, and justice.

Ally Boguhn is the political and campaigns editor at RH Reality Check. She previously worked as an associate research director at Media Matters for America, where she specialized in analyzing media representations of reproductive rights and health. She completed both her BA in communications and art history as well as her MS in professional communications at Clark University, where she researched abortion debate rhetoric.

Kanya D’Almeida is the race and justice reporter at RH Reality Check. Prior to joining the reporting team, she held the post of regional editor for Asia and the Pacific at Inter Press Service (IPS). She has reported from IPS bureaus in Washington, D.C. and the United Nations. She earned her BA at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she pursued a double major in political science and fiction writing. She is a graduate of the School of Authentic Journalism. Her work has appeared on Al Jazeera, Truthout, Alternet and the Margins, among other publications. Originally from Sri Lanka, she currently lives in New York City.

Mikala Jamison is the editorial associate for RH Reality Check. Before joining RHRC, she was arts and culture editor at Philadelphia City Paper, a leading alternative newsweekly, where she wrote stories concerning relationships and sexuality, feminism, substance abuse, and the eccentricities of how local people live their lives. She’s also been the managing editor of the Philadelphia community newspaper, Star, and her work has appeared on the pop culture website Pajiba.com. Outside of journalism, she’s a workshop instructor for the Philly nonprofit Mighty Writers, where she helps young girls develop their writing skills.

Nicole Knight Shine is the Mountain West Region reporting fellow with RH Reality Check. She previously covered county government and transportation for the Orange County Register. Her freelance work has exposed camps that train teens in anti-choice advocacy and revealed the scare tactics of crisis pregnancy centers. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, Pacific Standard, and Los Angeles Times.

Jenn Stanley is the Midwest reporting fellow for RH Reality Check. Stanley, who is a journalist, writer, and audio producer living in Chicago, Illinois, has focused on social justice issues and urban affairs. Particular areas of interest include identity, gender, sexuality, and reproductive justice. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Salon, the Windy City Times, and Next City, among others, and she’s worked as a facilitator at StoryCorps. She has an MS in journalism from Northwestern University.

Tina Vasquez is a reporting fellow at RH Reality Check focusing on immigration. Previously, she was a freelance writer and editor with almost ten years of experience, focusing on intersectional feminism, racial justice, and immigration. She is the former associate editor at Black Girl Dangerous and she has contributed to the Guardian, Truthout, Jezebel, Bitch Magazine, and Al Jazeera. She is a 2014 VONA/Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation alumna and the winner of the Media Consortium’s 2015 Impact Award for her story “It’s Time to End the Long History of Feminism Failing Transgender Women.”

Each of these individuals brings to RH Reality Check a wealth of experience and knowledge, and each has a strong background on a variety of human rights issues. They join a fantastic team already in place devoted to bringing you high-quality, evidence-based reporting.

The addition of these incredible individuals is also another page in RH Reality Check’s exciting next chapter, about which you will be hearing more in 2016. It wasn’t so long ago that our staff was small enough to share a cab. But through deliberate and steady growth, we have pursued our goal of becoming a nationally recognized publication, one now reaching nearly eight million unique readers per year, without relying on click-bait or sensationalized stories. Thanks to the generous support of our readers, foundations, and leaders in the reproductive health and justice community, we have grown—and continue to grow!—in editorial, investigations and research, technology, development, and communications. In March next year, we will be taking the next large step by relaunching under a whole new name and new site. We are deeply excited about the future and excited about what we can continue to offer our readers and supporters!

Image: Shutterstock

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White Chicago Policeman Charged in Black Teen’s Shooting Death