Solutions Summit spurs ideas to stop sexual abuse of farmworkers

A coalition of farmworker advocates, law enforcement and sexual violence prevention counselors wants to form a collaboration to make Monterey County, Calif., a model for how to confront the sexual abuse of farmworkers.

Another group wants to bring an innovative corporate social responsibility program from Florida's tomato fields, known as the Fair Food Program, to California. The retired judge who runs the enforcement of that expanding program has agreed to help with a pilot project.

These are two of the more concrete ideas that emerged from the Solutions Summit, an experiment we tried last month around Rape in the Fields, a collaboration among the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Frontline, Univision, KQED and The Center for Investigative Reporting that revealed the pervasive sexual abuse of farmworkers across the country. The Solutions Summit brought together a diverse group of people active in these worlds for a day of problem-solving at a Sacramento restaurant.

Something powerful happened after Rape in the Fields ran in June.

Spontaneous screenings of the documentary popped up across the state. All kinds of groups wanted to show the film and talk about it. Over and over, the journalists who produced the story heard the same question at these events: What can we do about the sexual abuse of farmworkers?

That's a big question without a simple answer.

The Solutions Summit was designed to make that question at least a little bit easier to manage. We specifically chose a small group from across different backgrounds to identify the challenges to solving the problem and, eventually, craft fixes.

The group included a sheriff's commander and victims advocates from the district attorney's office in Monterey; farmworker attorneys and advocates who've been active in the issue for decades; advocates for sexual abuse survivors; a grower; the retired New York judge who's spearheading that innovative program in Florida; a legislative staffer looking to take on the issue with legislation; government attorneys who monitor workforce conditions; and many others.

The goal: to do something. Yes, they talked, listened and debated. But then they broke up into groups to create blueprints for how to fix the fact that sexual abuse remains prominent in farm fields across the country.

We organized the day into three phases: facts, solutions and working groups.

Facts

The group pinpointed a host of root causes for the problem. But three basics stuck out:

1. Lack of trust between farmworkers and law enforcement

Farmworkers aren't likely to report a crime to law enforcement for fear of being deported. Even though laws exist to protect victims of crime, immigrants living in the U.S. illegally either don't know about them or don't trust them.

Laura Segura, executive director of Women's Crisis Support – Defensa de Mujeres in Watsonville, Calif., blamed Secure Communities, the program that puts local law enforcement in cooperation with immigration officials, for undoing a trust that had taken decades to build with immigrant victims of domestic violence.

"We can no longer say in complete confidence, 'Yes, call law enforcement, and you will get protection,' " she said.

2. Lack of training and education

So many conversations came down to education. Farmworkers not knowing enough about how to report the problem or not knowing about the U visa – a program designed to get immigrant victims of crime to come forward by offering them temporary legal status. Growers and supervisors needing more robust and frequent training on how to address sexual harassment in the fields. The spouses and partners of survivors not being prepared to be supportive if their wife or girlfriend comes forward.

For example, Maricruz Ladino, a farmworker who says she was raped while working in a Salinas lettuce field, said there have been consequences to telling her story for our TV documentaries and radio and print pieces. Her fiancé didn't know how to handle her public revelation, she said, and he felt upset that he hadn't been able to do more to stop the rape from happening. He broke up with her soon after the Spanish-language documentary aired.

3. The power of retribution

This is a basic, but big one: Workers are afraid they'll lose their jobs if they speak up. Advocates talked over and over again about the balance of power, something the Fair Food Program has tried to address. The program has a zero-tolerance policy for retribution, meaning any supervisor or grower who retaliates for reporting a problem is kicked out of the program.

Solutions

We heard about a handful of potential government solutions already being kicked around and a couple of efforts already underway.

For example, Judge Laura Safer Espinoza talked about the Fair Food Program, which essentially moves enforcement away from police and into a market-based system. Major tomato buyers like McDonald's, Whole Foods and now Wal-Mart agree to buy only Florida tomatoes from growers who follow a strict code of conduct. Workers and growers who violate the code face immediate sanctions.

Working groups

They emerged with prototypes for a handful of potential solutions.

There were the two mentioned above – Monterey County as a model of cooperation and bringing Fair Food to California. To get the Monterey project started, Pamela Patterson of the district attorney's office is organizing an October conference.

Beyond that, the rest of the solutions focused on education and training. Making sure farmworkers know the protections of the U visa. Teaching spouses and partners how they can be supportive. Passing legislation that would mandate more supervisor training based on a more concrete, uniform curriculum.

Just getting this group together in a room also sparked other ideas and connections outside of the working groups:

  • Almond grower Craig McNamara, president of the state Board of Food and Agriculture, said he's going to talk with the board about holding a hearing on the topic.
  • The office of state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, is trying to find a solution either through legislation or the budget. Her office later met with the female farmworker advocates from Lideres Campesinas and with Julie Montgomery of the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
  • Segura's group is going to team with William R. Tamayo, who's fought growers in court for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to do regional training around sexual abuse.
  • Suzanne Teran works in the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley, whose mission is to protect low-wage and immigrant workers. Her group wants to get involved in the issue now. "We learned a lot and are feeling motivated to look at how to integrate sexual harassment into our work on health and safety," she said.

Plus, there's a long list of other solutions that already had been sparked by the stories and the screening of the documentary across the state.

Journalism organizations normally don't do events like this. We place a high priority on making sure our work has impact, and this was one experiment in pushing that forward. We didn't advocate for any specific solution, nor will we in the future.

But we learned there's a role for an independent news organization to play in facilitating a conversation on neutral ground. We'll be keeping tabs on what happens and trying to hold the participants accountable in the future.

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