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HuffPost Greatest Person Of The Day: Maria Citino Sfreddo Empowers Latina Domestic Abuse Victims

Huffington Post   First Posted: 05/17/11 03:44 PM ET Updated: 08/04/11 12:46 PM ET

Maria

Maria Citino Sfreddo has a voicemail greeting that's over a minute long. "Please speak slowly and clearly and I'll get back to you as soon as I can," she instructs in English and then follows with lengthier instructions in Spanish.

"I give people options," Maria, the creator of the Head Start Legal Clinic in Chicago, told HuffPost. "That's what I'm there for."

Maria, who grew up outside Columbus, Ohio, is not a native Spanish-speaker. "I'm the Italian Maria," she said. "Not a Latina one."

But she fell in love with the language in high school. She built houses in poor communities in Mexico and taught English as a second language at a local after-school program.

For her high school senior thesis, she created a unique ESL tool kit. "It sounds like a bigger deal than it was," she laughed.

While studying social work at Miami University, Maria worked in Hamilton, Ohio, with Help Me Grow, an organization that aims to provide families with health care and other services within the state. It was there that she was first introduced to the deep and often impenetrable communication gap that existed between the Spanish-speaking community and government services.

"This was a town where the sheriff had put an 'Illegals Enter Here' sign at the entrance to the jail," Maria said. "People were scared to apply for public benefits because they didn't think anyone spoke the language or wanted to help them. Some women thought that if their kids played outside, President Bush would send them to the Middle East. They were completely unaware."

With the goal of working specifically within the Spanish-speaking community, Maria's path continued through law school in Denver, where she took "Lawyering in Spanish" classes and learned the complex terminology unique to the language.

After school she headed back to the Midwest and soon, with support from Greenberg Traurig and an Equal Justice Works Fellowship, developed the Head Start Legal Clinic, with a focus is on domestic abuse cases within the Spanish-speaking community.

"I'd always been interested in women's issues, but I didn't know if I could stomach these cases or understand them," she said. "But once I got more involved and learned more about domestic violence and how things play out the way they do, I couldn't imagine working in any other area."

According to a study by the UIC Center for Urban Economic Development, 34 percent of Latina women in Chicago have experienced domestic violence. To complicate matters further, Maria explained, Latina women are specifically threatened with much more than physical abuse.

"There's a perceived risk of deportation if these women seek help," she explained. "The abuser says: 'I'm not going to help you get a green card or a visa if you don't do what I say, I'm going to take your kids from you, you'll be deported."

Biding her time between 10 different pre-schools on a weekly basis ("That's the best way to reach people," Maria said, "since they're able to tell their abusers that they're just 'dropping their kids off at school,") Maria leads "Know Your Rights" presentations and attempts to forge unique legal options for families.

"I'm there to empower these women," she said. "A domestic violence survivor doesn't need some attorney coming in and saying what they should or shouldn't be doing. She needs someone saying, 'Here are ways I can help you, but its your choice, it's your decision.' "

She lets undocumented clients know about the Violence Against Women Act and U visa, both of which provide residency options and support for victims of domestic violence.

"I try to come at this from a legal standpoint," Maria said. "I have to make it clear that there's something they can do to change this."

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