Gang mediators take on domestic violence

January 24, 2011

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(Chip Mitchell/WBEZ)
Norman Kerr says CeaseFire has no choice but to address "intimate partner violence."

A Chicago-based group called CeaseFire works in the city’s toughest neighborhoods. It trains former gang members to mediate conflicts that could turn violent. Those conflicts might be over turf or money, a pecking order or a personality clash. Now CeaseFire is addressing another source of gang tension: wives and girlfriends. But some advocates for battered women worry that mixing gang intervention with domestic-violence work could backfire.

MITCHELL (at the scene): I’m at the offices of a Humboldt Park group called the Alliance of Local Service Organizations. It runs a CeaseFire chapter and they’re letting me listen in to a debriefing about a shooting this month.
CEASEFIRE WORKER A: Could there be retaliation to this incident?
CEASEFIRE WORKER B: There could have been, very likely, but since we talked them down and...
CEASEFIRE WORKER A: Because somebody went around on a graffiti rampage, right?
MITCHELL (at the scene): I’ve agreed not to identify the CeaseFire workers or anyone involved in the conflict.
CEASEFIRE WORKER A: The victim was in a relationship?
CEASEFIRE WORKER B: He’s in a relationship. He was having another relationship outside the relationship....

MITCHELL (in the bureau): Here’s the gist of the story—all of it alleged. A gang member got a teenager pregnant and started slapping her around. This didn’t sit well with her family. And, the thing is, her family’s in a different gang. So someone in that mob tracked down the man and shot him.

CEASEFIRE WORKER A: Did the victim die?
CEASEFIRE WORKER B: No.
CEASEFIRE WORKER A: Did the victim know the perp?
CEASEFIRE WORKER B: Yes.

MITCHELL: Violence involving gangs and girlfriends is nothing new in Chicago. But it’s only lately that CeaseFire’s Humboldt Park chapter responds this way:

CEASEFIRE WORKER A: OK, so a domestic-violence advocate has been notified and is working with the related parties around safety planning. We don’t know if that has taken place, right?
CEASEFIRE WORKER B: No.
CEASEFIRE WORKER A: Because we gave her the card but...
CEASEFIRE WORKER B: It’s on her if she wants to go get the help. We can’t force her to do anything.
KERR: And there are other services that we’ve connected with as well so...

MITCHELL: This last guy is Norman Kerr. He’s a social worker who oversees the CeaseFire chapter. Kerr speaks with me after the meeting.

KERR: A year ago, we didn’t really concern ourselves with needs of the victim in a domestic-violence case. If there was a young lady who was victimized by her boyfriend, that really wasn’t something that we addressed.

MITCHELL: So Kerr and some former gang members he supervises got some training from the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network. And the CeaseFire chapter has developed an approach to what it calls “intimate-partner violence.”

KERR: If we know someone is victimized, we want to make sure that they’re getting the help that they need. And, at the same time, we’re sitting here talking about how we can educate the young guys that they shouldn’t be perpetrating domestic violence.

SHAW: That’s a dream come true.

MITCHELL: Barbara Shaw heads a state agency called the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority.

SHAW: Men sometimes feel that they have a right to hit their girlfriends or hit their wives—that they’re supposed to maintain control. And having other men, particularly men who have a macho image themselves, telling them that this is not OK and not manly increases the validity and strength of the message.

MITCHELL: Shaw says gang interventionists with roots in the neighborhood have much more access to perpetrators than victim advocates do. That’s actually the idea behind expanding the program. Starting next month, the Humboldt Park chapter will train CeaseFire street workers citywide about intimate-partner violence.  But some battered-women’s advocates warn that CeaseFire could be putting those workers in greater danger.

ABARCA: The offender may try to send other people after him or may teach him a lesson for getting into his business.

MITCHELL: Rosa Abarca heads the domestic-violence program at Mujeres Latinas en Acción. That’s a women’s center in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Abarca says a perp. might mistake what a CeaseFire worker’s up to.

ABARCA: He may feel like this is a boyfriend that’s trying to help her out. And that can escalate the abuse for her because he’s probably thinking that, "She’s being unfaithful. I need to control her more."

MITCHELL: And Abarca points out some victims may not be ready for help.

AMBI: Debriefing.

MITCHELL: Back in Humboldt Park, the CeaseFire workers are still talking about the shooting.

CEASEFIRE WORKER A: Let me ask you this: What happens if she does end up getting slapped again tomorrow?

MITCHELL: I ask the group’s leader, Norman Kerr, whether Abarca has got a point.  Maybe a CeaseFire worker could make a domestic dispute worse. Maybe he could spark more violence.

KERR: We’re not trying to work directly with female victims. We’re making referrals. We’re making sure that the female victims in those situations are getting some services.

MITCHELL: Kerr wants his crew to be careful. But since so many gang disputes involve girlfriends and wives, he says, CeaseFire has no choice but to get involved.

Music Button: Calibro 35, "Appuntamento Al Contessa", from the CD Rare, (Nublu)