I recently had the great honor of interviewing Paula Lucas. She is the Founder & Executive Director of The Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center. Paula was kind enough to share her personal story about domestic violence and how it lead her to build from the ground up an organization that now helps hundreds of families needing help worldwide.
Can you tell me about the Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center : its history, mission and activities?
The organization works with abused Americans, mostly women & their children, in foreign countries to provide domestic violence and child abuse advocacy and the resources and tools needed to navigate the complicated jurisdictional, legal and social international landscapes. Our goal is to help the victims continue their live their lives free of abuse either in the foreign country or back in the United States. This is achieved via an international toll-free crisis line, 866-USWOMEN, accessible from 175 countries, serving a population estimated at 5.25 million American civilians overseas. We also provide safety planning, case management, professional counseling, legal consultations, housing assistance, emergency needs and danger to safety relocation.
I lived overseas for 14 years, 12 of those years in the Middle East as an abused American wife and mother. My children were also abused. I finally escaped with my three sons in 1999, aged 4, 6 & 8 at the time, and fled back home, only to be shocked that I would have to fight a legal battle to keep my American children in their own country – something I never anticipated. My husband came to Oregon and hired a private investigator to find us. We were forced to go into hiding. We lived like gypsy’s going up and down the west coast on the train, living in shelters and surviving on welfare and food stamps. Oregon gave me jurisdiction for child custody and divorce but not for alimony and child support. Eighteen months after arriving back to the USA, I had legal & physical custody of my children, a bill for legal fees for tens of thousands of dollars, but no chance of child support, alimony or half of the marital assets of a 15 year marriage. The organization was born from those experiences, initially modeled after what I had wished had been available to myself and my children, and has continued to evolve.
With which countries do you work the most often? Are cases concentrated in certain areas of the world more than others?
In 2009 the Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center received 1424 crisis calls, crisis emails and live chats from 369 people in 64 countries. A total of 271 families with 248 children were served. Of these families, 63 had issues related to the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction in their attempts to flee to safety. 243 of these were new families with 28 cases brought forward from 2008. Due to the complexity of the situations, our case managers work with clients an average of 6 months, handling an average case load of 30 families at any one time.
The organization also provided 9 legal consultations via a partnership with a pro-bono international family law attorney and paid 1 legal retainer, provided danger to safety relocation for 11 families (5 paid & 6 assists), provided funds for basic needs to 5 families and professional counseling to 4 survivors. Top countries calls were received from: France, Mexico, Canada, Switzerland, Italy, England, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Jordan, UAE, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Australia, Brazil, Ecuador, Algeria, China, Poland, Israel & Nicaragua. While the majority of calls come from European countries, Mexico & Canada, we believe this reflects that our outreach, education and training efforts have been more fruitful, not because there is more violence perpetrated in those countries.
How do you coordinate activities from Portland, Oregon and why was this particular city chosen?
I am a native Californian, but I came to Portland when I fled the Middle East because I had a sister that lived here. I didn’t want to move once we got settled in. The boys have has so much upheaval and abuse in their lives that I wanted us to stabilize. Portland is a great place to live so that was a big plus.
All crisis services are coordinated from Portland. In addition to operating the international toll-free crisis line, we have a crisis email and live chat capability on the website. We have phenomenal staff members & a team of volunteers that keep crisis services operating flawlessly. We do conduct information sessions and volunteer trainings outside of the USA. In 2009 we focused on Europe. In 2010, the Far East and we are in the planning stages of 2011.
How do you see the role of women today, specifically American expats? Are there more professionals than women following their spouses?
I think it used to be fairly standard that the woman was the trailing spouse. Now we are seeing more women being hired overseas and the husband becoming the trailing spouse. We also see more single American women moving overseas for school or job opportunities.
The Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas, FAWCO, has over 75 Member Clubs representing more than 15,000 individuals around the world. Many other American women groups are organized throughout the world. A large percentage of these club members are American expat women.
Can you tell me how the Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis network has grown over the years? Who are your principal partners and how many countries use your help?
It has gone from a zero-budget one-woman-show to an organization with 5 employees, 50+ volunteers and an operating budget of just under $500,000.00, but it took 10 years to reach where we are today. About 70% of our calls come in directly from victims, 16% from other agencies serving victims, 9% from concerned family & friends and 5% from Embassies or the State Department.
Our principal partner is FAWCO’s Ending Violence Against Women & Children Task Force, individual FAWCO clubs and other expat organizations such as American Citizens Abroad, Association of American Residents Overseas and women’s groups outside of FAWCO. In 2009, victims from 64 countries used our help.
Have you seen positive changes in the system for helping to protect womens’ rights both in the US and abroad?
Yes, I believe the proctection of women’s rights is evolving. Examples of this are The Violence Against Women Act of 1995, the International Violence Against Women Act of 2010, the Office of Global Women’s Issues under the US Department of State, Obama’s appointment of Lynn Rosenthal as White House Advisor on Domestic Violence Issues. There is also an emergence of celebrities speaking out against violence against women including Nicole Kidman as UNIFEM Goodwill Ambassador, Reese Witherspoon’s support of the UN Trust Fund To End Violence Against Women, as well as Salma Hayek, Martina McBride and American singer-songwriter Jewel speaking out against domestic violence.
If you need support or know someone who does:
> call toll-free: 0800-99-0011 or 0805-701-288 and then dial: 866-USWOMEN (866-879-6636).