A Survivor’s Story

Friday, October 9th, 2015

In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, VPLC Staff Attorney Susheela Varky shares the story of one client who made it out of the hidden cycle of violence with help from multiple VPLC staff and other advocates.

Luisa[1] lifts the heavy vacuum cleaner and other cleaning supplies into the back of her van. She just finished cleaning her third house of the day. It’s 3:00 PM, and she’s exhausted. Luisa’s job cleaning homes is physically demanding, and her income is unpredictable. Long-term clients move or get divorced and can no longer afford to have Luisa professionally clean their homes. Losing one regular client puts pressure on Luisa to find another one…and to do so very quickly so as not to lose monthly income.

That said, Luisa’s life is MUCH better than it used to be.

Looking back, Luisa met her husband in Argentina many years ago. When they first met, her husband, Tomas, was loving, but slowly over time, things started changing. At some point after they married, he acted as if he owned her. He wouldn’t let her have friends. He wouldn’t let her visit her family. All he let her do was work. He did not work so Luisa was the one who worked to support their household expenses.

At some point the aggressive behavior turned violent. Tomas became physically, emotionally and sexually abusive to Luisa in a regular basis. He would beat her with his belt and tear her clothes. A few years later, she began to develop an illness that caused internal bleeding so painful she could barely stand up. Tomas’s abusive behavior exacerbated her illness, but Luisa told no one about the abuse because she was afraid Tomas would kill her if she did.

In the early 2000s, the Argentinian economy was failing, and it was very hard for Luisa to find work. Tomas brought Luisa to the U.S. to find work. Luisa found work cleaning houses. While seemingly given a new lease on life, Luisa’s life actually became a living hell. She was weak and tired and always working to keep up with basic living expenses. One night, she went to the emergency room of a local hospital, where the doctor wanted to admit her. Tomas came to the hospital, told Luisa to take off her hospital gown, put on her clothes and leave with him, saying they could not pay for hospital fees. Luisa’s doctor refused to let Tomas take her out of the hospital. After Luisa left the hospital, the abuse worsened…as did Luisa’s health. Tomas didn’t care that she needed to heal and recuperate. He called her lazy, even hitting her even while she was working.

Friends and family tried to convince Luisa to leave Tomas and report his abuse to the police. But Luisa was afraid to do so because Tomas told her he would report her immigration status (undocumented) to the police. Finally, one weekend, when Tomas was out of town, Luisa made plans to leave him. With the help of a friend, she reported all of the abuse to the police. She received an Emergency, Preliminary and later, a two-year protective order. Tomas was also convicted of the crime of assault and battery against Luisa. He did not follow the protective order and was convicted of violating it, which gave Luisa another 2-year protective order.

While in court, Luisa met an advocate from a local domestic and sexual violence shelter. She began to get counseling and joined a support group for survivors of intimate partner violence. Luisa’s cooperation in the criminal proceedings against Tomas made her eligible for a U visa, an immigration visa geared to victims of certain types of violent crimes who, among other criteria, are helpful to law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of such crimes.


The longer she was away from Tomas, the more confident she grew. Luisa, her advocate, one of my law school interns, Rebecca Westfall, and I pulled together the documentation she needed to file a U visa application with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a department of the United States Department of Homeland Security.

USCIS only has 10,000 U visas to give out per fiscal year for the entire country. Needless to say, there are many more worthy applications than U visas available for eligible clients. The wait list of would-be U visa holders is long. When the new federal fiscal year opens on October 1st of each year, wait-listed applicants obtain U visas. Luisa is on that wait list now. Luisa met the “economic necessity” to work standard that allows her to work legally as she awaits her U visa.

Because of Luisa’s medical condition, she needs to remain in the United States to obtain treatment that is not available in her home country. Additionally, she needs to maintain her health insurance coverage. Until recently, Luisa was paying over $700/month for her health insurance plan. She was also living in a dangerous section of town with lots of drug deals occurring in the open. Luisa tried to avoid leaving her apartment after dark. She would come home exhausted from cleaning homes only to have trouble sleeping due to the noise and loud parties from surrounding neighbors.

In 2014, Deepak Madala, Project Manager for Enroll Virginia,[2] and I helped Luisa choose a health insurance plan that would meet her health care needs but save money on monthly premiums. Luisa now has a health insurance plan and a dental plan. She never had dental insurance before this. Even while adding this feature, Luisa lowered her health insurance expenses from $700+/month to about $140/month!!!!

The extra disposable income that was going to her health insurance premiums allowed Luisa to spend more on rent. She moved to a nicer neighborhood that is quiet and safe. She is divorced from her abusive husband, has legal status in the United States and owns her own cleaning business. She is independent, works hard and has friends and family who care about her. Most importantly, she is finally and fully free from the daily violence she endured for over 20 years.



[1] The name, “Luisa,” and other names in this blog have been changed to protect VPLC’s clients’ identities.

[2] Enroll Virginia! is the effort to enroll eligible Virginians in health insurance plans through Virginia’s health insurance exchange. These plans were made available by the passage of the historic Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare.”

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