In the United States, there are more than twice as many animal shelters as there are shelters for battered women.
Though domestic violence is a rampant societal illness – a woman is assaulted or beaten every nine seconds – it is also an issue that largely evades the public eye. Often victims feel too ashamed to confide in anyone, so the problem proliferates beneath a blanket of silence. And often, those who are not affected look the other way.
“There’s just so much need,” Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi said at a hearing Monday night in a Beach Cities Health District room. “It’s just so striking that even in the beautiful South Bay, behind closed doors there’s so much sadness and so much tragedy and so much pain being inflicted.”
Last year in L.A. County, 48 people were murdered in cases of domestic violence, and 90 others were nearly murdered. These cases are separate from thousands more felony and misdemeanor cases of spousal abuse, and they do not include the violence that was not reported, which studies suggest is the bulk of it.
Muratsuchi and fellow Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez arranged the event to commemorate Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Four panelists who work on the frontlines of the battle against domestic violence briefed the lawmakers and members of the public in the audience on the difficulties plaguing their work. They also suggested what kinds of legislative change might make a difference.
“In order to be good legislators and lawmakers,” Gomez said, “we have to be humble enough to admit when we don’t know all the issues and facts.”
The four panelists offered a version of the same perspective – that while strides are being made and domestic violence receives far more attention than it did 30 years ago, it is still an under-addressed issue.
“As a field we’ve had very many successes in the past years to improve services for domestic violence victims, far too many to count,” said Marci Fukuroda, director of legal services at San Pedro shelter Rainbow Services. “California has some of the strongest laws and protections for domestic violence victims in the nation, but we also continue to face serious struggles in serving victims.”
One of the most prominent challenges Rainbow faces is the scarcity of low-income housing for survivors – a difficulty exacerbated by the discontinuation of Section 8 vouchers.
“The reality is that the people who come to our shelter are the poorest of the poor,” Fukuroda said. “Most of them are living at less than half of the national poverty level; a typical client might be a parent with two kids living on less than $800 per month…Without affordable permanent housing, victims are forced to return to abusive homes and often forced to be homeless.”
She also pointed to a marked lack of agencies emphasizing prevention, or services for abusers and children, rather than intervention, or services for victims.
This is deeply concerning, she said, because men are twice as likely to abuse their own wives if they experienced or witnessed domestic violence as children.
A representative of another agency, Center for the Pacific-Asian Family in Gardena, said procuring employment for survivors is an especially difficult challenge. In most cases, her clients cannot return to work. They risk being located by their abuser and, if they are immigrants, they cannot work because divorce renders them ineligible for a green card.
There are also legal complications related to the prosecution of domestic violence cases, Daniels said. Some survivors do not want to proceed with the charges for a variety of reasons, including feelings of shame and fear.
“However, if we have the evidence to prosecute, even if victims and survivors change their minds about prosecuting, we will proceed with the case,” Daniels said. “While we recognize that family violence is violence within the family, it is a public issue. It’s a societal issue.”
Moreover, prosecutors often struggle to obtain protective orders for both an abused parent and her (or his) children.
“The reality is that a child who is in a home where there’s domestic violence occurring, whether they’re physically harmed or not, they are suffering emotional harm, psychological harm,” Daniels said. “Many recent studies are saying they show almost the same PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as do adults who are in violent situations and not only do they suffer psychological effects but it has physical manifestations… Somehow that connection is being missed both on the bench and sometimes by law enforcement as well.”
Muratsuchi asked Daniels whether AB109 – a California initiative to realign its prisons – is impacting domestic violence agencies.
“It’s unclear, really, if this is the result of AB109 realignment, or just that parole is becoming easier in California,” she said, “but we had a recent case, for example, where a defendant who had been serving a term in prison for murder was released and within a year of being released we had filed an attempted murder on his new girlfriend. This was someone who’d been released and probably five years ago would not have been released.”
Redondo Beach City Prosecutor Melanie Chavira said AB109 has “dramatically” affected the outcome of misdemeanor domestic violence cases.
“Basically, the statutory requirement for a misdemeanor is three years of probation, one year of counseling,” she said. “With realignment, a misdemeanor defendant is doing less than 10 percent of their sentence.”
Another issue is the shrinking capacity of the court system, which is particularly disadvantageous for victims of elder abuse, said Ardis Shubin, community services specialist at H.E.L.P. (Healthcare and Elder Law Programs Corporation).
“We no longer have a probate court in Torrance, so a lot of the seniors and their families that come in… trying to get help have to trek downtown to get to the probate court to file papers. Financial considerations limit them from being able to file necessary paperwork.”
H.E.L.P. is a small organization, but one of the only serving adults over the age of 65 (and dependent adults of any age) who are being neglected, exploited, or mistreated, often at the hands of family members or spouses.
The organization sees seniors who show signs of physical abuse – “cigarette burns” or “detectable rope burns,” for example – and with psychological scars, but most often, its clients are being financially abused.
“We’ve had parents who literally have been evicted and put on the street by their own children and have [been coerced] into signing over property, signing over bank accounts, basically signing over everything they own on the pretext of being taken care of.”
And like most other victims of domestic violence, a senior person will justify a perpetrator’s actions.
“They will find every excuse to try to cover it up it breaks our heart when they are trying to protect their children because oftentimes the children are the worst abusers of all,” Shubin said.
While domestic violence continues to be a pressing humanitarian issue that affects every class, race, age, and culture, and while challenges mount for organizations working to end it, there is hope. Resources do exist.
Redondo Beach is the only one of the Beach Cities to offer a domestic violence advocacy program, funded by Beach Cities Health District and the Redondo Beach Police Department. Last Saturday, in commemoration of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the program held its sixth annual candlelight vigil.
The program’s volunteers respond to 145 calls – 15 percent of them from men – per year and attend to dozens more walk-ins. They arrange emergency lodging and transportation for victims, accompany them to court, and assist them with obtaining protective orders. Often, they will actively support a victim for months at a time.
Ericka Sazo-Gonzalez, the program’s coordinator, explained that volunteers are on hand “24/7, every day of the year.”
“There are always advocates on call, ready to roll.”
L.A. County DV Hotline: 1-800-978-3600
RBPD DV Victims Advocacy Program: (310) 379-2477 x2336
Rainbow Services, San Pedro: (310) 547-9343
1736 Family Crisis Center, South Bay: (310) 370-5902
H.E.L.P., Torrance: (310) 533-1996, help4srs.org
For legal information, visit da.lacounty.gov