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SHELTER FROM SHAME : Building Bridges Into the Multicultural Community, Local Refuge Has Award-Winning Programs to Reach Battered Women Who Are Up Against Barriers of Custom and Language.

June 27, 1993|SUSAN PATERNO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Women chattering in foreign languages and broken English walk in and out of an ordinary blue stucco house in Orange County. The house, with white trim, lace curtains and a striped tomcat stalking birds in the front yard, looks like any other in Southern California.

But the women who live there know their home is a refuge, a place so hidden that few know what goes on inside. Every day the residents of this battered-women's shelter share secrets of lives filled with terror and shame.

In the past few years, more and more minority and immigrant women have been turning up at battered women shelters throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties, a fraction of the number experts suspect are victims of their partners' violence.

As Southern California's immigrant population grows, the crisis worsens, leaving women trapped in their homes, "in their own little world of terror," said Carol Williams, executive director of Orange County's Interval House, one of a few places in the country where large numbers of immigrant or other non-assimilated women find safety and a new life.

Maria, 26, is typical of the women who live at Interval House.

Abandoned in Mexico at age 6, she fell in love at 15 with the first man who paid attention to her. Though they never married, they had five children. He rejected birth control. Two of the children were born with unformed hands and feet, probably a consequence of poor nutrition during her pregnancy, she said.

Maria and the children left several times, once when she was four months' pregnant. They lived on the streets in a run-down neighborhood outside of Mexico City, begging for food and drinking tainted water. She returned to her common-law husband because she and the children were sick and hungry. Soon after, her baby was stillborn.

Last spring, when she was pregnant a fifth time, the children's father went to the United States. Maria tried to reconcile with her mother, hoping for help; instead, she said, she was condemned. "She told me, 'You made your own bed, now lie in it. Your children were born with deformities as punishment for what you did.' "

With no one else to turn to, Maria sold her few possessions, took the kids and followed their father to Santa Ana. She found him living "romantically," she said, with his 17-year-old niece. After six months of living together with the niece and enduring frequent beatings if she complained, Maria left again and ended up at Interval House.

Interval House is one of a few Southern California shelters that has specialized, comprehensive programs to meet the special needs of non-assimilated women, with counselors fluent in several languages and sensitive to the mores of other cultures.

The Interval House program is the most extensive in the county, having won local, state and national awards for its work with immigrants. The county's two other shelters also serve immigrant women, but in smaller numbers and with fewer bilingual staff members who speak mostly Spanish, according to administrators.

In the past, "there was very little effort on the part of shelters or social service agencies to take care of these women," said Interval House's Williams. In 1979, Interval House became one of the first in the nation to begin a program for Spanish-speaking women.

The house now includes women from all over the world. Every month, staff members accept into one of the two homes roughly 60 women from the 300 who call for help and referrals. They serve 65% minority women, and more than 70% of the staff is bilingual, Williams said.

A recent renovation project expanded the shelter's capacity by one-third. Women and children can stay a month to six weeks at no charge--longer for those who need to--thanks to a combination of private and public funding that provides the house with a $600,000 annual budget.

"We're busting at the seams," Williams said. "We've always been busting at the seams. It's a horrible problem."

In the past few years, several other shelters in Los Angeles County have initiated similar programs for women, including two for Spanish-speakers and one for Asians.

But these are not enough, say local minority leaders; funding is one reason so many women have nowhere to go. At Interval House, for instance, the economic downturn has meant a reduction in donations, leaving the shelter without reserves for the first time in its 14-year history, Williams said.

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Orange County's Korean community "desperately needs" a shelter, said Dr. Miung Mi Ryu , a member of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence of Orange County.

"We've had a very hard time getting the funds," Ryu said. Korean women "want a safe place to go, but there are many more abused women than there are places."

At the Korean-American Legal Center, 20% of the cases handled are related to domestic violence, an increase of 15% from a year ago, Ryu said. "In Korean culture, hitting your wife and children is no big deal," Ryu said. "I grew up that way, so I thought it was no big deal."

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