A study of 90 battered women who had found refuge at a Laguna Beach shelter showed that only 22% were victimized again after leaving the facility, a much lower percentage than had been expected.
Researchers said the study, which is the first of its kind in Orange County, reaffirms the importance of shelters in helping to change the behavior of women who have been physically abused over a long period of time.
"If the success of shelters is measured in terms of women being able to move to a violence-free life, then that is a very significant finding, one that will be surprising to people in the field," said Elizabeth Thompson Ortiz, a professor of social work at Cal State Long Beach who conducted the study.
The study involved women who had stayed at a Laguna Beach shelter operated by a group called Human Options. The women, who stayed at the facility between 1984 and 1987, had been out of the shelter from 6 months to 4 years when they were interviewed.
Ortiz noted that researchers were able to contact only about 20% of the approximately 450 women who had stayed at the shelter during the period. But researchers said the data is significant because until now, there has been virtually no follow-up study of how women fare after they leave shelters and such information can lead to better ways of meeting the needs of battered women.
Vivian Clecak, director of Human Options, said the group is developing post-shelter support services based on results of the study.
Those services include long-term support groups directed by women who have previously resided in the shelter, and establishment of a multiservice center which might also provide housing and child-care services.
The study reinforces the belief that women enter and leave abusive relationships several times before they are able to break free. About 74% of the women said they had previously left a relationship only to return. Sixty-two percent of the women were married to the batterer.
"One thing we see is that these relationships have such a pull that women go back again and again," Ortiz said. "But the shelters help because they see examples of other women who were in the same situations. It may take several times for them to decide that the batterer won't change."
The women reported being extremely worried about the fate of their children and whether an abusive home life would leave them permanently scarred. About 56% of the women admitted to the shelter had children.
Other experts in the field said shelters can play an important role in easing concern about the welfare of children. "When there is a well-developed children's program and people around who can talk about how domestic violence affects children, it really helps," said Jan Armstrong, executive director of the Southern California Coalition on Battered Women. "Also, if women can get help on how to talk to children about what is happening in their lives and what the future will be like, it helps tremendously."
Forty-seven percent of the women surveyed were subject to or witnessed physical abuse in their parents' home, while 32% said they were sexually abused while young.
Fifty-six percent of the women reported that their mates--the men who had battered them--were raised in physically abusive homes.
"It shows that abuse is a pattern for many women, a continuing generational problem that is hard to break," Ortiz said.