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Coalition Focuses Attention on Women, Children : Recovery: Unrest exposed substandard living for many in urban core. Experts say cycle of poverty must be broken to revive city.

May 08, 1993|CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As policy-makers sort through a host of complex issues raised by last year's riots, more attention must be focused on women and their children in riot-torn areas if Los Angeles is to be healed, women's advocates say.

Arguably, women have borne the brunt of the social and economic costs of the unrest, they say. Women and their children make up a majority of poor and working poor in the areas of the city hit hardest by the riots--a third of families are headed by women and a third of these live below the poverty line, they say.

Furthermore, these experts argue, future disturbances can be avoided only by lifting women and children out of the cycle of violence.

But after a year of haphazard efforts at recovery, issues such as child care, health care, domestic and neighborhood violence and support programs for children have received scant attention, the experts say.

A coalition of activists' groups, formed after the riots, will hold the first of four public hearings today to address some of these concerns in an effort to ensure that women and children are not ignored as Los Angeles defines its future.

Among those expected to attend the hearing--scheduled for noon at the Natural History Museum, 900 Exposition Park--are U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), state Sen. Teresa Hughes (D-Inglewood), Assemblyman Louis Caldera (D-Los Angeles) and City Council members Mark Ridley-Thomas and Rita Walters.

Women's advocates argue that issues of special concern to women affect the entire community and should not be dismissed as marginal.

"When you are talking about the unrest and what kinds of desperate conditions lead to desperate acts then you have to address the real root causes of the problems," said Abby Leibman, executive director of the California Women's Law Center, one of the sponsors of the community meetings. "We have to understand what causes poverty. And to do that, we have to understand what causes women to be in poverty."

Leibman and others say that women, in particular, were poorly served in the aftermath of the riots by an "emergency management system (that was) not designed to respond to the average woman's" needs.

"Access for victims to personal needs like tampons was a nightmare," Leibman said. "And since women are the primary child-care arrangers, the disruptions in schedules and transportation hit them especially hard."

Police and rape-crisis hot lines reported increases in domestic violence calls following the riots.

Assaults against women and children also increased in the Korean-American community, with many families suffering forms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, said Ken Kilnam Roh, coordinator of mental health services for the Asian Pacific Counseling and Treatment Center.

"When the owners of these mom-and-pop firms operated a business, they didn't have time to fight each other because they were too busy," Roh said. "But when they lost the business, they stayed at home and all the anger came out."

Roh said that besides domestic violence there has been an upsurge in cases of families separating or divorcing and of children running away from home in the Korean-American community.

For hundreds of rape victims, the unrest produced bouts of renewed traumatization, said Patricia Occhiuzzo Giggans, executive director of the private, nonprofit Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women.

Women "were calling up hot lines talking about how frightened they were and that the violence had caused them to relive their own experiences," Giggans said. "One of the concerns that women have expressed to us is a consensus that L.A. is scarier for them now. We've had more businesses asking for self-defense courses for their employees."

The rioting also disrupted the delicate safety net that many women and children in Los Angeles' poorest communities rely on to keep food on the table.

More than 90,000 participants enrolled in the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program were unable to use food vouchers at neighborhood stores because they were closed or damaged during the disturbances, according to a recent state report on the riots' impact. The California Department of Health Services later allowed the vouchers to be used at any participating WIC vendor in the city.

The riots exposed the pervasiveness of substandard living conditions in South-Central Los Angeles, social experts say.

A survey conducted in August of nearly 1,200 inner-city women in the WIC program found that, for many, living conditions were as bad before the riots as after.

The study was conducted by the Harbor-UCLA Research and Education Institute, which manages the largest WIC program in South-Central Los Angeles to determine how the unrest affected families. Among its findings:

* Single mothers made up 25% of respondents.

* High school dropouts accounted for 74%.

* Teen-age mothers or pregnant teen-agers made up 19%.

* Food shortages were experienced by 35% because of the riots.

* More than 50% of the respondents were recent immigrants.

* More than 27% of the women said they or their families had lost earnings after the unrest.

* But only 1.4% of the women said their children were more likely to go to bed hungry after the riots than they were before.

The study underscores the need for programs designed to reach inner-city mothers if social changes are to be achieved, experts say.

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