October 22, 2020

A tribute to Paula Hernandez: Rutgers grad, teacher and humanitarian

Paula receiving her master’s degree from Rutgers

(Editor/author’s note: Paula Hernandez is the sister of my fiancee, Claudia. Our world was shattered when Paula was taken from us. But it was her amazing life and passion for helping people that inspired me to go to college to learn journalism. Please be aware, this article deals with murder and violence against women.)

On Saturday, June 22, 2019, Paula Hernandez was murdered by her boyfriend. She was strangled in her home in Palmira, Colombia. Paula’s birthday was August 21, this year she would have turned 39.

In her early 20s, Paula moved from Colombia to the U.S., after becoming the first person in her family to graduate from college. She continued her education at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she earned her master’s degree in public administration. After returning to Colombia in 2018, she began teaching English at SENA, a vocational school for low-income students. Paula dreamt of forming a non-profit organization to give back to the community for whom she cared deeply.

Paula lived with a passion for making the world a better place. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, she volunteered with the Coalition to House the Homeless and while living in Houston, Texas, she volunteered with the Houston Food Bank. Wherever she was, Paula was known to distribute prepared meals in neighborhoods where hunger was abundant.

At Christmastime, Paula organized a toy drive and hosted a special lunch where she presented the gifts. The charitable event, with balloon animals and face painting, brought immeasurable joy to children who had little and included some children who had fled from unlivable conditions in Venezuela.

“With all the turmoil that is going on in their minds, we would like to extend a hand and remind children that there is hope in humanity and that Santa Claus will reach them at their new locations,” Paula wrote on her charity’s GoFundMe page.  

With humble beginnings in rural Colombia and a childhood with no shortage of hardships, Paula bounded over all obstacles to excel academically and professionally. Paula traveled to faraway places in the world, likely being the first person from her birthplace to set foot in some of the destinations she visited.

Paula’s vibrancy inspired everyone around her. She instilled self-belief in her students, who saw themselves represented in her, a highly educated and worldly role model who came from the same rugged environment as they did.

If you know an exceptional person, someone who brings incomparable joy into your world, someone who is always there for you and can be trusted to never let you down, then you’re lucky to know someone like Paula.

She was fiercely committed to standing up for what is right. She did not tolerate any degree of injustice. Without hesitation, she would stand up for anyone being exploited. Paula never backed down from any bully. Her spirit emanated beyond her like heat from a fire. Her confidence propelled her through life and provided a wake for those around her to ride toward being the best person they could be.

Paula was the epitome of what weak, cowardly men despise most in the world: a woman who is infinitely stronger than they could ever imagine being. The weakest and most cowardly of these men kill women because it is easier for them to extinguish the brightness with which such women shine rather than let that light illuminate their insecurities so deeply rooted in hatred and ignorance. Tragically, unfairly, we are robbed of beautiful souls and left with these thieves-of-life who contribute nothing to the world but pain and whose presence is desired nowhere.

In Colombia, a murder charge can sometimes carry a mere seven-year sentence. For Paula’s killer, our lawyer sought the charge of femicide, the intentional killing of women because they are women, which, like hate crimes in the U.S., carries a harsher penalty with no impunity.

Paula’s funeral was attended by hundreds – family, friends, students, co-workers and members of the community grieving for this terrible loss and angered by the senseless crime. A motorcade led by nearly 100 motorcycles followed the hearse to the burial site where she was laid to rest.

Working with a women’s advocacy group, Paula’s students and co-workers organized a march that led from their school to the courthouse. Dressed in white and wearing purple ribbons, hundreds marched demanding justice for Paula, chanting loudly and carrying signs that read “Ni Una Menos,”(Not one [woman] less), the plea of those fighting violence against women in South America.   

After taking Paula’s life, the killer turned himself in to authorities, but was released on his own recognizance, as is the practice in Colombian law. Following the march, prompted by fear, self-pity and an unwillingness to face the consequences of his actions, the killer skipped his arraignment and fled.

He has yet to be captured.

Days after Paula’s funeral, one of her students who had attended the march was stabbed to death by her boyfriend.  She was on her way to file for a protection from abuse order against him when he yelled at her to get off of the bus. When she obliged, he stabbed her. The killer was charged with femicide.

Another woman was killed that same week in a nearby town. Women are killed in neighboring South American countries with equal frequency. And the violence extends globally, fierce as any virus.

Each day in America, three women are murdered by their partners. Twenty-thousand phone calls are made each day to domestic violence hotlines and 76% of domestic violence victims are women. But even that phrase, “domestic violence,” as Claudia explained to me, implies a private problem that should be dealt with outside the criminal justice system. Protection From Abuse actions in Pennsylvania are civil actions, only becoming criminal matters when PFA orders are violated. Obviously, domestic violence is not only a private problem. This problem belongs to all of us and we all must join in the fight to raise awareness and bring an end to this inequity which is likely at the core of more social issues than we realize.

Paula possessed indomitable energy and knowing that energy cannot be destroyed, we know that Paula is here with us. Forever guided by that energy, until we leave and pass it along to the next in line, we will continue Paula’s mission of making the world a better and more equitable place, fighting injustice wherever and however it shows itself. Paula always fought for everyone, now we fight for Paula.

HOW TO GET HELP

With coronavirus shut downs and quarantines forcing people to spend more time at home, tempers may flare and domestic violence victims may think there is nowhere to get help. Please don’t let the coronavirus shut down make you think that there is no help available for victims of Domestic Violence.

The first line of defense for victims of domestic violence is often a Protection From Abuse Order.  But according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s website, while “restraining orders can work to deter certain abusers, a PFA is just one tool in a larger plan to be safe from the abuse.” https://www.pcadv.org/   PFA orders in Pennsylvania are designed to provide protection for a domestic violence victim to have safe space to leave the relationship. PFA orders do not function to repair relationships or counsel or reeducate the abuser.  

Be assured however, that the Pennsylvania courts are open for Protection From Abuse actions for those who want to take that step out of a situation of domestic violence. The PFA process has been available throughout the shutdown and will remain available if another shut down of court buildings occurs. For general information and a video on How to File for a Protection Order in Pennsylvania, please see the Pennsylvania Court System’s website at: http://www.pacourts.us/learn/protection-orders

Emergency PFA procedures exist for times such as night and weekends when the county courts are closed but emergency procedures vary from county to county. In Lehigh County, the Magisterial District Judges handle Emergency PFAs. For other counties, please check the extensive list for information and contact phone numbers for all counties in Pennsylvania found here: http://www.pacourts.us/assets/files/page-1187/file-9488.pdf

Where can I call for help right now in the Lehigh Valley?

If you need help for a domestic or intimate partner abuse situation but do not want to approach the courts on your own, please reach out to Turning Point’s 24/7 helpline at 610-437-3369 / Toll-free: 877-438-4957 / TTY: 610-419-4594. www.turningpointlv.org

What is a PFA Petition?

A Protection from Abuse Petition is filed when a person is requesting a court order which protects victims of domestic violence from abuse, specifically physical injury or threats of physical threats.

Who can I file against?

A person may file a Protection From Abuse Petition against an intimate partner or family member. Here are some examples:

  • Spouses or former spouses
  • Current or former sexual or intimate partners
  • Household members related by blood or marriage
  • Persons related by blood or marriage
  • Same sex couples
  • Parents and children

The PFA act does not apply to disputes between strangers, neighbors, roommates, co-workers, or classmates. Abusive behavior by people in those relationships may be criminal or handled under another type of action. If you don’t know if you can petition for a PFA, call your county court and ask to speak to the PFA office.

If the abused person is a minor, then a parent, guardian or adult household member may file on behalf of the child.

How does the Judge Decide to Issue the PFA Order?

At a hearing, a judge will determine if the abuse alleged by the petitioner is credible and rises to the level of abuse. PFA orders are meant to stop actual physical abuse and threats of physical abuse. If the judge feels the petitioner is credible, a temporary PFA order will be issued. A second hearing will be held at which the defendant will get to defend himself against the abuse allegations. If the judge believes abuse has occurred, a permanent order that will last from one to three years will be issued.

Which County do I file in?

You may file for a PFA in a county if you live or work there, the defendant lives, works, or can be served there, or the abuse occurred there. Because of COVID-19, some counties have made the process partially remote so those seeking a PFA may start the petition process online, appear by ZOOM or phone, and get information without coming to the courthouse.  For example, Lehigh County posted a form and instructions to start the intake process on the COVID-19 page of the court’s website.

https://www.lccpa.org/forms/family/PFA/PetitionPacket-PFA.pdf

What if we reconcile and I don’t want the PFA anymore?

Please be aware that a PFA order will likely remove the defendant from shared housing and may cause logistical issues with child custody, visitation and support. A PFA Petition is a serious court action that should not be used to punish someone who you are angry with but who is not actually abusing or threatening you. To modify or dismiss a PFA, the petitioner may file another petition asking the court to change the PFA order.

For more information about Protection From Abuse, including more FAQs, you can find information for Lehigh County here: https://www.lccpa.org/family/pfa/  and the remote procedures on the COVID-19 page:  https://www.lccpa.org/Covid19

If you need to file in Northampton County, you should contact the PFA program of the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas:

https://www.nccpa.org/civil/protection-from-abuse-program

Chris Devlin

Chris Devlin, editor of The Commuter, is a freshman at NCC.

View all posts by Chris Devlin →
%d bloggers like this: