Oct. 13, 2002 Hundreds of women raised their hands and voices in prayer Saturday morning as they swayed to gospel hymns greeting Sen. Lorraine Berry's seventh annual Women's Conference at Marriott's Frenchman's Reef Hotel.
However, the women were told that it takes more than prayer to effect change. They received stern words of advice: more than advice, actually, mandates for change. Along with prayer, the women were told to take action, to get involved in helping others, to love themselves, to forgive themselves and others, to quit thinking and acting like victims, and to use the power vested in them.
"You have choices; make the right choice," they were told repeatedly by a panel of 12 experts in social work, health and law.
Though the women more than 500 strong were the focus of the conference, "Families under Siege Tackling the Challenges" was the official theme. The ultimate victims of the family's dissolution are the children, they were told, the babies.
Cynthia Clendinen, a professional health care worker, shared an experience of witnessing the birth of a baby girl who "could not breathe."
"She couldn't cry, and alcohol was on her breath. That broke my heart," Clendinen said. The baby had fetal alcohol syndrome.
Clendinen said, "We are under attack when we are stripped emotionally, psychologically and financially We must recognize the enemy. One-fourth of rape is by partners."
Carmen George told the women to say something, to stand up to their husbands or boyfriends. "You know when he climbs in bed at night, it's not just him it can be 62 of you."
She explained that if the man carries the HIV virus he can not only give it to his wife, but to his girlfriend(s), who in turn give it to someone else, and the infection spreads and spreads.
George, a 26-year law establishment veteran who was chief probation officer of the territory, is now retired from government service. But not from work, she said. She is now an outreach specialist for V.I. Community AIDS Resource and Educational Inc., VICARE.
"There is a booth outside with about 300 condoms in it. Take some," she said.
Dr. Robin Ellett, a public health physician, quoted familiar statistics: "The V.I. has the second highest HIV/AIDS cases per capita in the nation," she said, "second only to Washington, D.C."
Ellett talks about the virus in schools. "I know some the students are sexually active," she said. "And I know some of them are infected." She also spoke of the high rate of teen pregnancy in the territory.
Luz Maldonado, an outreach worker for the Village on St. Croix, brought the voice of recovery into the crowded ballroom. Her story was graphic, and she spoke from grim experience.
"Eight years ago I was a crack addict," she said. She described her situation, and the road to recovery she has traveled the last eight years, sometimes bringing gasps or absolute silence from the audience.
"What does HIV look like?" she asked. "What is the face of HIV?"
She paused and then said: "You are looking at it."
A vibrant and attractive woman, Maldonado said her life changed when she was diagnosed with the virus. "At first, I was in denial," she said. "I thought, 'f it, why me?'"
But, then she said she thought: "Why not me?" And she began to fight.
"I got it, but it ain't got me," she said, fighting back tears as she looked to Carmen George for support.
Maldonado is on a crusade. She takes her experience to schools and to high-risk groups, displaying her spirit. "I'm here now to educate," she said.
And when it looked as though she couldn't speak any longer, Maldonado broke into song, a song about hope, which brought the audience to its feet in an ovation.
St. Croix psychiatrist Dr. Olaf Hendricks didn't mince words either. "The only reason you are under siege is because of you," he said.
He told the women that it's their fault they have so little self-esteem that they allow men to abuse them. "You don't like to hear about that," he said.
"One reason you are under siege is because you unwittingly play the game." He glared at his audience. "Stop it, I'm begging you," he said.
"We men in the V.I. are crude, disrespectful," he said, "because you allow it You have the key to stop this. Use it."
In what began to sound like a political announcement, he urged the women to elect a female leader. "Take someone from your ranks to lead," he said, reminding the women, as several other speakers had, that they carry 57 percent of the territory's vote.
Attorney Douglas Dick, who heads the Justice Department family and special victims unit, lamented the astronomical number of rapes in the territory, especially against children. "It's almost like the 'rape of the week,' to read the papers," he said.
Dick said the difficulty in trying these cases is getting witnesses to testify. And there is difficulty in identifying the perpetrators. "Just because someone is nice in the way you know him doesn't have anything to do with what he does behind closed doors."
The problem with witnesses is the overwhelming attitude of "I know, but I don't want to get involved," he said, noting that the response is toxic to his ear. Dick urged the women to be responsible, to report what they see.
Terrence Joseph, Justice Department liaison officer in the Division of Paternity and Child Support, said, "It's all about the children." Joseph said there may be that dad out there that the child has never met, and about whom the mother has bad memories, but he is still a dad to the child.
"Dial-a-Dad" is a free program that addresses that problem. "It's a dream I had," said Joseph. "People move away, they have custody of the kids, they're in the U.S., and communication is lost. Let the kids visit," he said. "Sometimes the parent doesn't even know the dad's name. This program can help."
A vehement advocate for child support and getting the money where it belongs, Cynthia Farmer took up where Joseph left off, but spoke from a different perspective. She wants money from the dads so the kids can live a decent life.
Farmer is the local voice of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support. "Lack of child support is the basis for welfare," she said. "Receiving child support is welfare reform." Farmer said $84 billion is owed in child support payments today.
Holding up a postcard, which she said was available in the lobby, Farmer urged the women to send a postcard to their senators. The card asks what the senator is doing about unpaid child support. She told the women: "Know your rights, and pursue the child support offices in writing, don't be put off. Don't recount your melee. Write and tell the man's social security number, where they can find him. Demand your rights."
Michal Rhymer, executive director of the Family Resource Center, spoke of something she knows only too well: child abuse. Rhymer has managed the center for almost 10 years.
"It's a chilling situation," she said. "We've got to break the silence."
One out of three girls and one out of five boys will be the victims of sexual assault before they reach 18, she said, noting that 85 percent of abuse is done by someone the child knows.
"In 2002 more than 80 percent of rape victims here were less than 18; the adult female is the exception," she said.
Noting this is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Rhymer said, "Since last year when I spoke here, two children and three adults have been murdered." Leaning forward on the podium, Rhymer said, &quo
t;You must report it. I don't know how some people sleep at night."
Rhymer interrupted herself, breaking into song, "What about the children? Remember when we were children. Who is there to love them?"she sang.
"That is my question," she said, "Who is there to love them? I get chills when I feel their pain."
Rhymer recalled an experience she had in the V. I. Legislature when the agency was almost closed down for lack of funds. "They said 'don't be so passionate just because you want money,'" she said, adding, "I know what I will do at the polls in November.
Attorney Delia Smith, Justice Department director of domestic violence, spoke bluntly. She told of her first experience seeing the corpse of a domestic violence case. "That's not something you forget," she said. She said the hardest part of her job is convincing the victims that they are victims, that they are not at fault.
"With the victims, it's never the first time when they wind up in court," she said, "and they don't want to prosecute 'I need him in the house' they'll say, when I've seen them in the ER covered with blood."
Family Court Judge Audrey L. Thomas told of the heartbreaking cases she sees in court, where she has heard a child say he has no mommy because, "Daddy killed mommy." She told about the two children who were killed this year by "friends" of the families.
"I had spoken to the older sister of one of the victims who was left in the household where the sister was removed. In less than a month, the younger sister was dead."
She said the mother of that child was dead herself less than a week after appearing in the courtroom.
Sen. Berry spent the conference seated in a wheelchair placed before the speakers' table because of a recent fall at her home that caused severe damage to her knee. However, her infirmity didn't dispel her enthusiasm for the conference.
"There were a lot of younger women here today, heads of households," Berry said. "They realize they have to empower themselves. They have to get involved."
Adelle C. Belle moderated the meeting. Other panelists included Dilsa Capdeville, KidsCope executive director, and Gustavus "Cass" Connell, a registered nurse.
Booths were set up outside the ballroom by the American Cancer Society, with mammogram information; by VICARE, with the condoms and sexual disease information; the Business and Professional Women Association; and the ACES organization.
The Faith Christian Fellowship Church Alive in Christ provided the music.
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