(WOMENSENEWS)–Ilianexy (Lilly) Morales’ troubles began on July 1, 2005.
She was living with her bed-ridden mother after just having left her boyfriend of three years because he was "controlling and verbally abusive." When he came to her mother’s house looking for her, he pulled out a knife that he had taped around his sock and mercilessly slashed her face and body.
"I was a mess," said Morales. "There was blood everywhere. But the police were able to capture and arrest my ex." He is now serving a 15-year prison sentence.
Morales’ Medicaid coverage paid for several surgeries on the muscles and nerves in her hands and arms. But her facial scarring was considered cosmetic and not covered.
Four years later, Morales was still unable to work.
"The injuries were all over my body," Morales said in a phone interview. "But of course when people see me, the first thing they see is my face."
In 2009, Morales began to research the possibility of getting help from domestic violence organizations.
On the Internet she found Maria DiBari, a survivor of domestic violence in New York who runs the blog 4survivors.
"Maria replied to me right away," said Morales, "and she referred me to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence."
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), based in Denver, Colo., provides referrals to FACE TO FACE, a program run by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. The program has one dedicated staff member and 400 enrolled volunteer doctors.
Morales says she followed the instructions on the Cosmetic and Reconstructive Support program page, then waited. She didn’t hear anything about her application for several months.
"I felt really hopeless at the time, like I’d never get the help I needed," she said.
Morales went back to DiBari.
"I immediately started calling the NCADV myself," DiBari said in a phone interview. "But I didn’t hear back from them either."
Sharing Morales’ Predicament
In a Sept. 21, 2009, post, DiBari wrote about Morales’ predicament.
About two months later Morales received a call from Maria Luisa O’Neill, the staffer at that National Coalition Against Domestic Violence responsible for the Cosmetic and Reconstructive Support program.
Shortly after that, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence screened and approved Morales, but provided no limit on the waiting time limit for further news.
"We don’t have the list of doctors," O’Neill said in a recent phone interview. "The NCADV never gets feedback on what happens once an applicant is passed on to FACE TO FACE."
Dr. Andrew Jacono is chair of the FACE TO FACE program. "Because of privacy laws, we can’t tell NCADV or anyone else when a woman has had, or not had, a surgery," he said in a recent interview.
Several months after Morales was approved by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a cosmetic surgeon who was a member of FACE TO FACE noticed Morales’ story on DiBari’s 4survivors blog.
Dr. Oleh Slupchynskyj’s assistant contacted Morales through 4survivors.
"I didn’t get referred by FACE TO FACE, but Dr. Slupchynskyj was a member and they had never sent him a patient," Morales said. "Once I showed him my approval letter from NCADV, he did work on just one small scar, but he wanted to wait four months to see how the healing would be."
Not All Doctors Assigned Patients
With 400 doctors in the FACE TO FACE program and an average of 150 applicants a year, not all doctors will get assigned a patient.
While Morales was waiting to heal from the treatment of a single scar, she got an e-mail from blogger DiBari.
The Discovery Health Channel was looking for victims of domestic violence who couldn’t move on with their lives because of physical disfigurement. Announcements were posted on several Web sites, including Help A Reporter Out.
Alexis A. Moore, president of Survivors in Action, a grassroots advocacy group for victims of domestic violence, had partnered with DiBari in trying to get help for Morales. She saw the notice on the reporters’ site and e-mailed it to DiBari on July 9. DiBari immediately forwarded it to Morales.
Morales jumped to apply before the July 12 deadline.
Morales was accepted to appear in the documentary, "Facing Trauma," airing on Discovery Health in December.
"It’s not that I wanted to be on TV, but this was the only way I was going to get the help I needed. I was lucky really," Morales said. "But now I wonder about all the other women who don’t find the help they need."
Morales wound up having her extensive surgery performed in a single operation by Jacono, chair of the FACE TO FACE program, on camera in August.
Jacono, an activist for survivors of domestic violence, told Women’s eNews that he personally called every woman in the FACE TO FACE database but none were willing or able to appear on television.
Many Live in Fear
"It’s a lot to ask of a woman who has already suffered so much. Many of them live in fear, and most don’t want to go public with their stories," Jacono said.
Morales thought she was applying to Jacono’s program through the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. But Jacono said his group didn’t receive the application.
"FACE TO FACE has a database and Ilianexy wasn’t in there, that’s why she didn’t hear from us," he said.
"We checked our records and the application was forwarded on to FACE TO FACE," said Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, about the missing application. "I suspect it’s possible there was a typographical error in the data entry and that’s why it’s not coming up in their database, but we did give it to them. Maria Luisa O’Neill is working with Michelle at FACE TO FACE now to try to see where it is in their system."
Smith said she doesn’t know how the referral service can be improved, given the privacy barriers between her group and the pro-bono surgery groups. But her organization will try to do something to improve the process for other applicants.
"Maria Luisa is now talking with FACE TO FACE about ways they can communicate on a little more regular basis to try to facilitate a smoother operation of the program," Smith said.
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Regina Varolli is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. She blogs about Food at The Huffington Post and Culinary Sagacity.
For more information:
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Cosmetic and Reconstructive Support Program:
Maria DiBari’s Blog 4survivors:
Survivors in Action:
FACE TO FACE: