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When Delaware Family Court Chief Judge Vincent J. Poppiti traveled to Guatemala last year for workshops on family violence, he was cautioned not to have any expectations. Even with the warning, it was not enough to prepare him for what he saw. One memory in particular will not let him be. Poppiti was waiting to speak at a school of nursing and social work. A woman, accompanied by her child of eight or nine years and another woman, came in and spoke with a local social worker known as the “minister of victims,” a one-man operation without resources. He looked at the child’s back. The mother explained that her husband was beating her and their three children. She needed help, but there was none. “When they showed them to the door, they were showing them the door. There was nothing they could do,” Poppiti said. Poppiti went to Guatemala, a Central American country of more than 12 million people, mostly Latino and Mayan, as a voice against the violence that runs through the family, civil and governmental life there. He spent about 10 days in the country in late November. His trip was sponsored by a Guatemalan-based group that is part of the Worldwide Ministries Division of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He was invited to participate by the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Del., through his friend Fritz Ackerman, a church member and Wilmington Trust Co. executive, who also went on the trip along with four others. “[Poppiti's] programs will be a valuable contribution to the community,” said Ann Sayre, a member of the Guatemalan-based church group. “Some experts believe that over 90 percent of women in Guatemala suffer from physical, psychological and/or economic abuse.” Poppiti is hardly unacquainted with violence. Not only was he a deputy attorney general, but he has served 22 years on the Family Court and Superior Court, including the last nine years as the Family Court’s chief judge. Even with that background, he has found it difficult to talk about his trip. “This is not a comfortable place to be. It was ripping to see the poverty, mixed with the violence,” Poppiti said. “It’s not that we don’t see it here, but there is something here that can be accessed to help reduce the risk.” Poppiti saw people living on otherwise breathtaking mountainsides in caves or shacks, whatever they could find, amid dirt and fumes. He saw stores with guards cradling shotguns in front. He was warned not to go outside after a certain time at night because there would be watchdogs loose. He was told that lynching was common because people didn’t trust their government or law enforcement. Poppiti intended to take photographs but didn’t. “If you wanted pictures of beauty, you had to point up. To point down, I saw a horribly dirty city,” he said. “Every used school bus in the United States must find the way there — with the fumes we don’t get.” Poppiti’s mission was to discuss domestic violence with church, community, school and legal groups. He felt as though he were starting from the beginning, because even the churches have done little to prevent it or recognize its seriousness. “The result of this lack of preparation,” Poppiti told the groups in his remarks, “has been silence and neglect in the face of a widespread social problem — a problem that has manifested itself in the lives of individuals and church families for many years. “In addition, many pastors — blinded by cultural norms and by the common practice of blaming the victim — have made something bad even worse by giving advice that never challenged the violence and that permitted the violence to continue and become even more dangerous. ‘Go home and try to be a better wife,’ some might say, or ‘Submit to your husband as Scripture says,’ or ‘Pray for your husband; God will protect you.’ “ With little to build on, Poppiti kept his message for improvement as basic as possible. He told the churches to become sanctuaries, as they were in the Middle Ages. “Whether it’s for a minute, a night, a day, provide a safe haven,” he said. He gave women advice on how to plan for their safety. He suggested they try not to argue in the kitchen, where the knives were, although he didn’t know how many of them lived in one-room dwellings, and he said they should teach their children how to hide or run to a neighbor if they saw domestic violence coming. “That was a simple message to deliver but complicated in whether they could address it,” Poppiti said. Poppiti said the workshops were well-attended, by both women and men. Before he left he asked Ann Sayre, his host, why she thought it was important for him to come. “She said, ‘You’re a man. You come from the United States, and you wear a black robe. The people we call judges here are not respected. Vincent, what we’ve done here will save some lives,’ ” Poppiti said. Sayre asked him to return. “I’m almost hard-pressed not to,” he said.

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