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CENTERPIECE : OUT OF HARM'S WAY : Learning to Reject Abusers : More female victims of emotional or physical mistreatment turn to shelters.


"There has to be a better way to live."

After 40 years of physical and emotional abuse--from being locked in closets by her court-appointed guardians as a toddler to being confined to her boyfriend's house as a woman--Tania Roberts said this idea finally struck her harder than any man ever had.

Roberts, a 43-year-old Thousand Oaks resident who spoke for this article under a pseudonym, said it was three years ago when she found the strength to leave an abusive boyfriend and enter a shelter for battered women.

Now she is among the counselors who see an increasing number of Ventura County women seeking help and rising up against men who have beaten or emotionally abused them.

The trend is not overwhelming--in fact, the Ventura County Coalition Against Household Violence in Ventura reported a slight decrease in calls and requests for shelter last year--but it shows up in the figures of several local agencies.

Martha Bolton, director of family services at Interface: Children, Family Services of Ventura County, a Camarillo-based agency, compared six-month periods and found a 34% increase in women seeking support services from 1990 to 1991.

In Ventura, police logged a 12% increase in domestic violence calls, from 34 calls a month from January to August, 1990, to 38 a month over the same period in 1991. In Simi Valley, police reported a 24% increase, from 27.5 calls a month in 1990 to 34 a month through November, 1991. Oxnard police said the number of domestic violence calls was stable at about 62 per month from 1990 through 1991.

Domestic violence experts say the cause for the rise in reported cases is unclear. They say the figure could indicate that awareness of the problem has increased, that more women are fighting back or that hard economic times are fueling increased frustration, abuse and violence in more homes. To calm violent behavior in a home, many authorities say, most abusers must overcome denial.

"It takes a willingness to . . . say, 'Yes, I was violent and I want to change my ways,' " said Gina Giglio, a marriage, family and child counselor in Ventura.

"These guys are not bad guys," said David Friedlander, a counselor who answers calls on an "anger hot line" opened last year by the Coalition Against Household Violence. He also runs an anger-management group for men who have been convicted of spousal abuse.

"They've had trouble in dealing with their anger," Friedlander said. "I think they can learn new ways of doing that. . . . Sometimes, I think these guys are written off (as) unchangeable."

For women to get help, it often takes the strength to leave a relationship in which they seem emotionally or financially trapped.

"A woman has to agree to take care of herself," Giglio said. "A woman who is beaten up (often) gives up inside."

In a few highly publicized cases, battered women have killed their abusers. But far more often, the first recourse is a friend, a family member or a women's shelter.

At the Coalition Against Household Violence, Executive Director Jamie Leigh and other staff members recounted these cases among the many they have confronted in the past year:

* A 21-year-old Ventura woman, mother of a year-old child, called to say she had just been beaten again by her husband of two weeks. For three years before their marriage, the woman acknowledged, her husband had been abusive and unfaithful. "She was real shook up and real angry that she had married him," a coalition staff member said.

* A 35-year-old Oxnard woman reported that her husband had taken her and their four children to a vacant lot and put a knife to her throat. The husband left them there, where they were found by a police officer. He called the coalition for help.

* A 21-year-old Ventura woman told shelter workers that she fled after her husband shoved her against the wall and table in their house, bruising her back and arm. She left her 18-month-old twins with her husband, who she said went to court and won custody of the children.

* When a 30-year-old Camarillo woman with four children found her way to the shelter, she was one of the most battered women that staff members had ever seen. She told staff members that her jealous husband had seen a construction worker say hello to her, accused her of flirting in front of their children and later took a machete to the construction worker's leg. The husband was arrested, the shelter coordinator said, and received a suspended sentence for spousal abuse and a year in jail for the attack on the construction worker.

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