Magazine Features

Puertas Abiertas (Open Doors)

An outreach to victims

PuertasAbiertas_mainThe Puertas Abiertas (Open Doors) program at the Salvation Army’s San Juan, P.R. Corps provides professional counseling and guidance to victims of crime, abuse, and trauma.

“Puertas Abiertas goes right to the core of The Salvation Army’s message to serve all people, without discrimination,” says Dr. Luis A. Francis, a clinical psychologist who has worked for the Army for 25 years.

The program began when Teresita Pacheco and Marjorie Yambo, social workers for the Social Services Department at The Salvation Army in San Juan, realized that many of the people who came to the Army for help had been robbery victims. Pacheco (who would eventually become a Salvation Army officer) and Yambo formally proposed that the Army start a program to provide counseling for these victims. In 1990, the idea received approval and funding through the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 (VOCA). Over the years, victims of various crimes, such as carjackings, sexual abuse, and even non–violent offenses, such as fraud or stolen identity, have received treatment via Puertas Abiertas.

Edna Quiros, coordinator for Puertas Abiertas, says, “For many years, Dr. Francis and I worked directly with criminals. But when we came to The Salvation Army, we dedicated our careers to working with victims.” She is the first person who receives the names of victims from the police, the Department of Justice, local universities, and other non-profit organizations.

As coordinator, Quiros approves the cases needing counseling and forwards them to Fabiola Perez, who does community outreach for Puertas Abiertas. In addition to contacting the victims, Perez, who studied forensic psychology in college, meets with representatives of local government, public housing, and the media to promote the program and find where its services are needed most.

“Everything we do here at Puertas Abiertas follows the protocol of visiting a psychologist. We require signed documents that confirm a client’s acceptance in the program. If working with a minor, an adult’s permission is required. We also offer group counseling for families. We provide our services free of charge,” says Perez.

Dr. Francis estimates that, on any given day, the Puertas Abiertas team, which includes counselors ranging from interns to psychologists with doctorates, has about 500 open cases.

Treating the victims

The cases are diverse, often violent, and frequently tragic: A woman, while in her shower, was stabbed multiple times and mutilated by a jealous boyfriend; A two–year–old girl accidentally shot her father with his own gun; and in another case, an 18–year–old man found his mother murdered—her body sealed in a trash bag outside their home.

Many of the people who seek help suffer from Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and clinical depression as a result of these traumas.

“Their state of mind can be similar to a veteran’s coming back from war,” says Dr. Francis. “If a person has PTSD, we try to bring him or her in as soon as possible.”

Says Quiros, “Some small event or occurrence can trigger a terrible, painful reaction in a victim. Medical doctors will not always be able to find the cause. If the person can’t sleep, or is anxious, doctors will just offer medication. They don’t deal with the trauma.”

The counseling process begins as a victim talks about the event as accurately and in as much detail as possible. Puertas Abiertas counselors then focus on making sure the victim refrains from blaming him or herself for what happened or thinking that he or she should have been braver or more careful.

For weeks or months after the incident, victims can have strong, recurring nightmares. They frequently relive and exaggerate the episode. Dr. Francis once counseled an elderly man who had been robbed at gunpoint multiple times. During his last encounter, his assailant told him to not look at him, or he would shoot him.

“Tired of being robbed, the elderly man defiantly stared at his assailant in the face. The mugger pulled the trigger, but the gun jammed. So he pistol–whipped the man leaving him injured, but alive. Days later, the man began having nightmares of the event, but in his dream, the gun goes off and kills him,” says Dr. Francis.

Such fear can be brought on when there is little or no physical harm involved. In another case, a mother waiting alone for a bus, used her purse to fight off a knife-wielding teenager. The teen became frightened and ran as onlookers cheered the courageous mom.

“She developed nightmares in which she is stabbed to death,” said Dr. Francis. “Even more painfully, in the dream, she sees her children crying for her. We eventually hospitalized her for depression. In an experience where she was not hurt, and even came out as a hero, she was still afraid of what could have happened.

“The traumatic event can last only a few minutes, but the battle the victims face within themselves goes on for much longer.”

The Army’s shield

“In our time at the San Juan Corps, we’ve seen many officers,” says Edna Quiros. “Many are taken aback when they hear these stories and incidents. But after the shock settles, we discuss the cases, and if the victims request it, they meet with the officers. Corps officers can provide another type of guidance that you would not get at a doctor’s office, or from other psychologists.”

“Many people wouldn’t dream that the same folks who put out the kettles at Christmas and run the stores would provide this type of community outreach,” says Dr. Francis. “Programs like this usually have a life span of a few years, yet we’ve been here for close to three decades. Though we may not have the staff and numbers of larger services, the Department of Justice has never stopped funding what we do.”

Perez recalls meeting a government representative to talk about Puertas Abiertas. When Perez mentioned that she was from The Salvation Army, the representative’s face lit up. She said, “I know who you are and what you do, and I know that what you are offering will be of great service to us.”

Says Perez, “When I introduce myself to someone on the phone, I always say ‘I’m with The Salvation Army,’ whether they be media representatives, government officials, or the victims of crime.”

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Remembering the moment

I met with three siblings who had been in a car accident that also took their mother’s life. It was one of the few times a case made such a strong emotional impact on me.

During our session, the middle child, an 11–year–old girl who had refused to open up during our previous meetings, suddenly described in vivid detail how her mother’s life had slipped away during those awful moments following the crash. “I called out to her,” the daughter remembered.

She broke down in my arms, and I held her.

Although her older brother reported being asleep during the accident, his sister said he had actually been awake the whole time, but had blocked out the painful memory. —Edna Quiros

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Delayed reaction

No matter how strong we are, we will always need a guiding hand when dealing with trauma.

I once counseled a 21–year–old woman who had been carjacked as she left a mall and found herself in the middle of a shootout between feuding gangs. Miraculously, she managed to escape.

Two weeks later, she seemed to have recovered fully from the ordeal. She openly talked to others about her experience, and had returned to the mall where the incident occurred.

I tried to reach out to the woman’s mother to express my concerns regarding her daughter’s sudden recovery, but she seemed uninterested. “My daughter is brave. She has put this behind her,” the mother said.

A month later, however, the daughter returned to our offices. She told us that, at a party with friends, she began to feel chills up and down her spine. She dropped her drink, began crying uncontrollably, and curled into a ball on the ground.

Her mind had completely repressed the pain and fear she had felt during the carjacking. She was hospitalized for a week, and started meeting with me again.

When people live through such events, the pain can stay hidden for days, or weeks. It could be so guarded that even the closest family members fail to see it. —Dr. Luis A. Francis

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It’s not the victim’s fault

This was one of my first cases, but her story will always stay on my mind. This woman was kidnapped by a group of men who were coming out of her apartment complex. They put her in the trunk of her car. They took her to an abandoned building, assaulted her, returned only half her clothing, and drove off. Eventually, she got to a gas station and called for help.

When Puertas Abiertas staff counseled her, she spoke about the assault. She also reflected on how she must have looked to other people. Panicked and with her clothing torn, she had tried to explain to them what had happened to her. When she returned to her building, security hesitated to let her in because they actually doubted she lived there.

It’s heartbreaking to think that embarrassment becomes another emotion that a victim deals with after surviving an assault. Such people need to be reminded that what happened to them is not their fault, nor reason to feel personal shame. —Fabiola Pérez

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