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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on April 24th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 7 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 7

Focusing on the underserved

The District Attorney's Office reaches out to indigenous populations in Santa Barbara County

BY CAMILLIA LANHAM

The mother of a local high school student recently discovered her car had been stolen, but she didn’t call the police because she didn’t have a driver’s license. Instead, the mom went to a high school migrant student advisor for help.

“She didn’t know what to do,” said Adriana Galindo, who works for the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District as an advisor to students in migrant-worker families.

The mother was scared that if she reported the crime she would get into trouble and possibly get deported. And Galindo didn’t know what to tell her at the time.

But after attending an April 22 conference presented by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, Galindo said she now knows how to respond the next time a situation like that pops up.

Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin explained to more than 125 educators, counselors, service workers, government employees, and nonprofit providers who attended the conference that if a crime is committed, it doesn’t matter whether the victim is in this country illegally or not.

“I guarantee any person … that under no circumstances [will] you be returned to your country if you were a victim of a crime, report a crime, or help the police in any way,” Martin told attendees.

The conference was designed to address issues specific to what are termed “indigenous” populations in Northern Santa Barbara County. Issues such as citizenship, poverty, mistrust of authorities, and language barriers make the 15,000 to 25,000 immigrants from the Oaxaca region of Mexico who live in North County a vulnerable population.

Terri Zuniga from the DA’s Victim-Witness Assistance Program said criminals often prey on that population, and only about 15 percent of the crimes committed against them are reported to law enforcement.

“We want to prosecute bad guys,” Zuniga said. “If we can get people who feel safe reporting, then we can be more successful prosecuting.”

For the last three years, the Victim-Witness Assistance Program has been working on education and outreach, specifically targeting that community with the help of a five-year grant of up to $125,000 per year from the California Emergency Management Program. In addition, the grant funds one full-time court advocate dedicated to serving the immigrant community in Santa Maria and two part-time advocates in South County.

The main goal of the grant is to build trust and relationships between the immigrant community and law enforcement, so more crimes get reported. Zuniga said the DA’s office and the police department would have limited success as lone agencies, but reaching out to social service providers, educators, indigenous community leaders, and nonprofits through such events as the April 22 conference can help establish a broader network to reach out with.

“If we draw all of these people in, and we’re all working together, imagine how much more successful we [can be],” Zuniga said.

About halfway through the second year of the grant, the DA’s office turned to radio as a way to reach out to the immigrant community. They run a weekly radio show on a station called La Buena. Each week, a different nonprofit or government agency comes on to talk about what services they provide.

“After our first two radio shows, our phone started ringing off the hook,” Zuniga said. “The interesting thing is, this community is hungry for resources because we would get calls for all kinds of things.”

And because the culture of these new callers is slightly different from what service providers are used to, they have to address the issues differently. She said the indigenous community needs face-to-face time rather than just e-mails or phone calls; they need to put the face with a name in order to trust someone.

Culture was one of the things discussed at the conference. Some of the things Zuniga said she wanted attendees to leave with were a list of best practices and the ability to form a collaborative group of people and service providers to address indigenous needs.

But even simply informing people of how law enforcement officers view victims of crimes seemed like enough of a reason to hold the conference. People like high school migrant advisor Galindo now have valuable information to share with the individuals they see on a daily basis.

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley made clear the take-away message at the beginning of the conference.

“Your status, that’s not going to matter. What is going to matter is your safety,” Dudley said.

Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at clanham@santamariasun.com.