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Doctoral student aims to help Hispanic domestic violence victims

By Susan White

When Cindy Fraga enrolled in the School of Social Work’s doctoral program, she knew she would confront a few personal boundaries she needed to challenge. Growing up in Miami, a thriving multi-cultural city, Fraga had long been reluctant to leave home or her tight-knit family. Unsure of her mathematical skills, Fraga was equally cautious about entering a quantitatively demanding program that would immerse her headfirst into statistics.

“But I really wanted to prove to myself that I could do it,” she said. “I was really trying to push my boundaries as a scholar.”

As a second-year Ph.D student, Fraga has more than tackled her own fears and has quickly emerged as a young researcher eager to chart a course for which there is currently no reliable map to guide her. Fraga’s goal: to plug a knowledge gap within the field of domestic violence.

Although a breadth of demographic data and studies exist on survivors, Fraga discovered several years ago while pursuing her MSW at Florida International University that none specifically addresses the differing needs of Hispanic women.

Generally, the common practice among researchers is to lump Hispanics together as one race. In reality, the population includes a mixture of cultures, rituals and traditions, each woven from an individual’s country of origin. As the child of Cuban-born parents, Fraga recognized the implications of using a broad brush stroke to define a population.

“It’s so hard to generalize because Cuban women may be very different from Mexican women,” she explained. “So the words that I use may mean different things in other countries.”

Part of what Fraga hopes to address in her own research is whether agencies that support domestic violence victims are tailoring their services to meet their clients’ individual needs and how these services are affecting victims’ overall recovery efforts.

For example, even different immigration patterns could affect who has access to help, Fraga said.

“So, women who come from a place where they can be easily documented, that may not be a big barrier for them in getting services,” she explained.  “But women who are undocumented coming into the United States, that is a barrier for them, so they might not be as willing to speak up, talk to police or go to specific agencies to talk about their violent situations.”

And if a woman comes from a culture where violence is not viewed as severely as in other cultures, she may also be more reluctant to seek help, Fraga added.  “There is some research that shows that Hispanic women stay in violent relationships 10 years longer than women of other races and ethnicities,” she said. “This is mainly due to the belief that men wear the pants in the relationship and that there is this vague line of – so where does the violence start?”

Fraga’s work could help to improve domestic violence programs, including those in North Carolina, where agencies are starting to offer specialized services to Hispanic survivors, said Rebecca Macy, a School of Social Work associate professor who studies interpersonal and relationship violence. Fraga is Macy’s research assistant.

“Unfortunately, there is almost no research about what services best help these survivors with safety and recovery from violent trauma,” Macy said. “So Cindy’s research will help guide the development of safety services for this vulnerable and growing population.”

Fraga recognizes that her Cuban background has influenced her academic interests, and as one of a few Hispanic scholars in the field, she is eager to “provide a voice” for those who share her cultural heritage. By drawing on her personal history, Fraga said she has learned to appreciate that people are more than numbers or statistics.

“It’s easy just doing research without understanding the population you’re serving,” she said. “But I think it’s important to be there on the front end to see how problems are changing and to discover who people really are.”