Observing Domestic Abuse Awareness Month with UNIDOS: Culturally Competent Support

Virginia Gittens Escadera

Virginia Gittens Escudero has been the executive director of UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence since November 2021

By Jonathan Gramling

As Virginia Gittens Escudero was earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Panama, little did she know that it would prepare her for her future career in Madison.

“To be able to study here, I had to do an evaluation of my credentials to see what they are equivalent to in the United States,” Escudero said. “When I did that evaluation, it came back as a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts with a minor in Panamanian law. At least I had something. I’ve heard stories of other people from different countries where a bachelor’s degree translates to a high school diploma. I actually had more credits and more time for some of the classes because we spend more time in the classroom there than here.”

Escudero came to Madison as an international student at Madison College in 2009.

“I went to Madison College taking many different courses,” Escudero said. “I studied business that I later found out that business is not my strong suit. I worked a few years with the Center for International Education, helping students with their admission to Madison College. I took political science plus human services. After that, I completed the human services program at Madison College.”

Escudero was at a crossroads in terms of deciding what to do next. And then a trusted professor intervened.

“A professor of mine, Harold Gates, reached out to me and said, ‘Virginia, I found the perfect job for you,’” Escudero recalled. “’It’s a job where you can combine your degree and background and you can use also Spanish because it is a bilingual position.’ He sent me the link and I applied. It was a bilingual legal advocate at DAIS. I started my journey at DAIS. I started in the legal program. A few years later, I was promoted to the service coordinator of the legal advocacy program. I was at DAIS for about eight years. I moved to UNIDOS last year in November. I appreciate all of my experience there and DAIS helping transitioning me to this position.”

Escudero came to UNIDOS with little fan fare due to the Madison area still being impacted by the pandemic and Escudero’s tendency not to seek the spotlight.

“I was at a community event recently and I saw a friend there,” Escudero recalled. “We were telling each other about our lives. She said, ‘What are you doing? Are you still at DAIS?’ I said, ‘I’m at UNIDOS now.’ She asked what I was doing there and I told her I was the executive director. She was like, ‘How did I miss that?’ Honestly, I didn’t make a big deal of it. I just wanted to get there and learn what it was all about. I was very anxious and nervous about taking over the role, especially when Veronica is well-known in the community. She had been here for a long time. And I was in the midst of a transition, so I didn’t make a big deal of it. I wanted to make it work. I wasn’t really thinking about it. This is not about me. This is not about me being the executive director. It’s about the work that we do at UNIDOS and the work that we do for the community. That is what is important.”

UNIDOS operates a 24/7 statewide helpline in Spanish. It is the only one in the state that provides information on domestic abuse in Spanish. It also provides one-on-one assistance.

“We have our counseling program, which is also new,” Escudero said. “We have two counselors who offer individual counseling to clients free of cost. And we have it free of cost because the community we serve doesn’t have access to health insurance, don’t have access to bicultural, bilingual domestic violence survivors. It is important that we provide that. We also have groups. Our group is still held virtually. Maybe next year, we will have it in person while still having it virtual so that they don’t have to commute.”

Escudero observed that October is Domestic Abuse Awareness Month. And while the COVID-19 pandemic might have hidden domestic abuse, in many ways it exacerbated it.

“We saw the violence during the pandemic right away,” Escudero said. “We know more about the pandemic now than we did in 2020. But without knowing how long it would take — I was working at DAIS at the time, but I was still working with clients — I saw the difficulties. Clients were trapped at home with their abusers. It wasn’t only them. It was also their children. Many families were without jobs, without the ability to pay rent, to pay utilities or buy food. There were many, many resources in the community. But the fear of not knowing where to go or how to do it causes a lot of anxiety and emotional disturbance in families. What we are seeing right now is a complexity in the kids about where we are. While we are kind of back to a ‘normal’ life, which it is not, COVID is still there. We can see many families and children who are emotionally distressed without the ability to pay rent. Housing is a huge issue right now. The complexity of the cases is something that we have not seen before. I like to be optimistic. I like to be confident about things getting better. I think the COVID pandemic is going to have lasting effects, especially among survivors. And it is kind of hard to predict how programs should happen. We’re still listening and we’re looking at trends in preparing for what our community and survivors need.”