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A refuge for victims of domestic violence in the Bay

Image courtesy of http://www.lacasa.org/our-voice/

Just over 36 years ago, there was nowhere a victim of domestic violence could go for help here in the Bay Area. So a group of women banded together to start La Casa de las Madres, California’s first domestic violence shelter and the nation’s second. Today The Home of the Mothers, as it translates in English, offers a range of crisis and intervention services, including an eight-week emergency shelter and a 24-hour crisis hotline – all free of charge.

KALW’s Holly Kernan spoke with Jamie Cox, the outreach and volunteer coordinator for La Casa de lasMadres. She asked her to describe the types of people who count on La Casa’s services.

JAMIE COX: So at La Casa De Las Madres we have a continuum of services and support for survivors and victims of domestic violence of all ages and all walks of life. Because what we know is that domestic violence affects all backgrounds and all communities really at the same rates; even elderly victims of abuse, of elder abuse, even when it’s not from an intimate partner, but abuse from a caregiver or an adult child. Our services range from 24-hour Emergency Shelter if someone feels in danger where they are living and not just a safe roof over their head, but while they are there really receiving counseling, attending support groups, working with a case manager around their individual needs like finding a safe school for their child if they’ve really had to pick up and leave their lives. So sort of ranging from that to our drop-in center where people can come really no matter where they are living. Maybe they are still with their partner but they want support around building their stability, their safety, and their options.

HOLLY KERNAN: La Casa De Las Madres has been around for 35 years now. I imagine that the political and cultural landscape has changed a lot around domestic violence. How has that evolved? What have you all seen transpire?

COX: One of the major shifts we have seen is the increasing availability of services for surviviors and I think we are lucky in the San Francisco Bay Area compared to some communities in terms of what’s available. 

KERNAN: The resources that are available to women.

COX: Right. That being said, I think there is still a long way to go. I think the community’s understanding of this issue of how we treat someone when they come forward as a survivor or the messages we send to children about what it means to be in a relationship and what a healthy relationship looks like. Just more broadly as a society, we still have a long way to go.

KERNAN: What are some of the things that you wish we knew?

COX: Well, there are a lot of myths out there about domestic violence, that it only happens in certain communities – in low income communities, communities of color, or communities where there isn’t as much education, or that it is only physical.

KERNAN: But it is much harder to quantify, if it’s not physical, right?

COX: Right, well and that is sort of reflected sometimes, if you look at data around abuse and prevalence,  it is hard to quantify all these other kinds of abuse, like sexual, emotional, verbal, economic. But I think that a real understanding of what it actually is –what it looks like for people and who it affects – makes us that much more able to respond and to support survivors and also to not stereotypes and to not make assumptions about people. That all men are batterers, let’s say, or that all women are victims.  That’s another myth – that it’s always happening in heterosexual married couples, whereas the rates are really the same in same-sex couples.

KERNAN: Can you just give us a sense of the scope and what domestic violence looks like here in the Bay Area?

COX: In San Francisco, on average every day the emergency services receives an average of 19 calls for help regarding domestic violence. Just since 2000, at least 30 domestic violence victims have been killed by their partners or former partners locally. We also know that the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that around 40 percent of victims will never report their abuse. On the broader level, roughly 1 in 3 women experience abuse at some point in their lifetime.

KERNAN: What kind of abuse are you talking about?

COX: That can include physical, sexual, or emotional. When we talk about abuse at La Casa De Las Madres we include any kind of control that a person can experience in a relationship.

KERNAN: But isn’t there a danger if you broaden the definition so much that you water down the real, grave cases of abuse where you do need somebody to step in?

COX: There are definitely cases where the level of violence is more dangerous and we definitely don’t want to water that down at all or make light of that. I think that when we expand the way that we think about this beyond that it’s always physical or that it is only physical, we are so much more able to respond to people that need help. So much of the time, someone may not have ever been hit, but they have been threatened, their economic resources have been taken from them, they’ve been isolated so they are not able to maintain connections with their support systems. All of these things can make someone very much at risk even though they may not have been hit.

KERNAN: Mother’s Day is coming up this weekend. What are you doing around your Mother’s Day campaign?

COX: Well, the campaign is called “In Celebration of Mothers,” and a big part of this campaign is taking place in social media, on Facebook. We are asking the whole community to participate in spreading a message of gratitude for mothers and for all those who have given us strength, care, been our refuge, been our support. The mother role looks different in all of our lives, but really recognizing the importance of caring, stable adults for children and in all of our lives. For children who have witnessed domestic violence, the number one factor in how they weather that exposure is the presence of at least one stable, loving adult in their lives. So part of the campaign is about recognizing that important role that mothers and all adults play in helping to create futures free from violence in all of our children.

Holly Kernan is the architect of the award-winning Public Interest Reporting Project. She is currently news director at KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco. In 2009 she was named Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Kernan teaches journalism at Mills College and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has taught at Santa Rosa Junior College, Youth Radio and San Francisco State University's Lifelong Learning Institute. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Mike, daughter, Julia, and retired greyhound Benjamin Franklin.