KENNEWICK — Six months ago, an advocacy agency that serves mostly Spanish-speaking clients opened in the Tri-Cities.
Since then, Consejo Counseling & Referral Service has helped about 150 clients who have been victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and other crimes.
"The need is here," said Melinda Garcia, the agency's domestic violence advocate.
Consejo, which means advice in Spanish, has been providing victim services to Latinos and low-income families across Washington since 1978.
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The agency, headquartered in Seattle, has nine offices in Western Washington, one in Yakima and was in Walla Walla before moving to the Tri-Cities in January.
Three advocates in the Kennewick office help clients with a variety of services, including obtaining anti-harassment and protection orders, completing crime victim compensation applications, and providing legal and health advocacy for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Domestic violence victims account for a little more than half of the agency's clients, Garcia said. Her clients are men and women and cover all ages, from teenagers (who don't need parental consent to get services) to a woman in her early 50s. But, Garcia said, the majority are women, ages 19-30, who aren't married but were in long-term relationships and have children with their abusers.
Griselda Ocampo Meza fit that description and was one of Garcia's clients.
The 21-year-old Pasco mother of a 5-year-old boy was killed May 24 at her apartment. Her former boyfriend is accused of fatally stabbing her.
Ocampo Meza and Gregorio Luna Luna, 31, had been together for seven years, but she reportedly ended the relationship earlier this year and filed for a protection order against him in February.
Some clients are referred to Consejo through other community-based services or organizations, and some find their way to it on their own.
Consejo's advocates also do a lot of community outreach to let people know they are there and how they can help, Garcia said.
For domestic violence clients, she helps them petition the court for protection orders, talks to them about safety planning and provides options for steps they could take next.
"It's our job as advocates to explain the process, get them out of the situation to where they are safe, and help them, if we need to, to get to a shelter," Garcia said. "I give them options, but they are the ones making that choice."
It's the same aid provided by Domestic Violence Services of Benton & Franklin Counties, but some clients may feel more comfortable seeking help from advocates who speak the same language.
A barrier many Consejo clients face initially is a fear to ask for help because they are in the country illegally. But Garcia said a victim's immigration status doesn't stop Consejo from helping them escape an abusive relationship.
"When we start to provide services to individuals, our goal is to empower them so they feel they have the confidence to do (what they need to do)," she said. "We guide them like a mother bird."
Consejo also runs peer support groups, though Garcia admits it's hard to get groups together because of the odd hours that people work. The groups, which have had as few as four victims and as many as nine, help victims learn they're not alone.
"They listen to other victims until they're able to feel comfortable enough to share their own feelings," Garcia said. "And what I always hear is, 'I thought I was the only one.' "
Many clients also are in the area without any family to lean on, so the friends they make in the support groups often become their family.
That's what happened with Ocampo Meza, who Garcia said had become good friends with the women in her support group. She was the youngest and the other women took on a protective role like a mother for her, Garcia said.
Garcia, who's been a domestic violence advocate for about six years, said Ocampo Meza was the first client she's had who was killed.
News of the young mother's death hit others in her support group hard, but Garcia said it also "made them stronger and pulled them closer together to help one another."
The tragedy also has brought in new clients.
"They say, 'I'm in the same situation and I saw what happened on the news. I don't want that to be me,' " Garcia said.