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SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : In the Shadow of Violence : At One of 3 Local Shelters for Victims of Domestic Abuse, Women and Children Find a Haven and a Place to Start Over

July 21, 1994|DEBORAH SCHOCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The telephone rings at 12:10 a.m., 1:02 a.m. and again at 3 a.m. Each time, shelter worker Maria Sanchez crawls out of bed to reach for the receiver and hears the voice of a terrified woman.

One caller blurts out that she is trapped behind locked doors in her home, frightened that her abusive boyfriend is waiting in his car outside. She wants to slip away tonight and drive to safety.

So Sanchez carries her bedding to a sofa next to the shelter's front door where she will be sure to wake up when she hears a knock.

The woman still has not arrived when daylight streams through the lace-curtained windo w s. A sleepy-eyed Sanchez sips coffee and dials the number she was given during the night. The phone rings. There is no answer.

*

The nights can be long and unsettling for those who serve as sentries at the Rainbow Services battered women's shelter.

During the daytime, this crowded three-bedroom house in the South Bay resounds with the sounds of spirited conversation, meals being cooked, television game-show music, and boisterous children chasing each other from room to room.

But late at night, with the sound of a ringing phone, the shelter's purpose comes into stark focus.

To those who pick up the receiver, it must seem as if countless women throughout Southern California are trapped in some sordid shadow world where they are threatened, stalked, beaten and bruised by their husbands or boyfriends. Some of the callers speak in whispers and some cry outright as they describe being taunted with guns, hit by flying dishes, slapped repeatedly in front of a child.

When they call the Rainbow Services hot line, day or night, they make contact with a worker usually seated in a cozy, well-lit office at a house tucked away on a residential street.

This house is a way station on an underground railroad of sorts, one of 17 shelters in Los Angeles County offering sanctuary to victims of domestic violence. Shelter counselors work together in hopes of providing emergency housing and other aid for 30 to 45 days for victims--primarily women and their children--who have fled abusive relationships.

Like most such shelters, the one run by Rainbow Services is in an undisclosed site to protect the safety of victims. Secrecy is paramount. It is, in fact, a misdemeanor to disclose the location of a battered women's shelter.

"Shelters have worked hard not to be visible," said Cheryl Majka, Rainbow's services director.

Unbeknown to many, three shelters now operate in the South Bay: the Rainbow shelter and two run by the 1736 Family Crisis Center, an agency based in Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach. Between them, the agencies provide 45 shelter beds for women and children, which workers report is far too few to serve the need in the South Bay.

The same shortage plagues the entire Los Angeles region. A total of only 390 shelter beds--including portable cribs for infants--are available in all of Los Angeles County, where law enforcement officials last year received more than 67,000 domestic violence calls.

The Rainbow hot line received 3,800 calls last year, and its shelter housed 82 women and 146 children. An average of 60 victims a month sought such services as individual and group counseling, child counseling, and legal advice on such matters as how to obtain a restraining order.

Facing such numbers, shelter workers can sometimes feel overwhelmed.

A chart tacked on a wall at the Rainbow shelter showed that, as of Monday, the agency had been forced to turn down 65 requests for shelter since July 6 for lack of space. An informal survey this month by the Los Angeles County Domestic Violence Council found that the county's shelter network may be turning away four out of every five families requesting shelter because of lack of space and other factors.

Pressure on that network has burgeoned in recent weeks, following the arrest of O.J. Simpson on charges of murdering his ex-wife and her friend. Reports that the Simpson marriage was marred by abuse have focused unprecedented attention on domestic violence.

The number of calls to local hot lines has surged, and the Rainbow shelter is at capacity, with 18 women and children on a recent weekend sleeping in three upstairs rooms furnished with dormitory-style bunk beds.

Many women who call have been listening to television talk shows, recognizing in themselves some of the classic signs of being battered. Now, some seem more willing to make a break for it, to leave an abusive partner for a shelter.

One such woman is 29-year-old Janet (not her real name), who says she endured years of physical abuse from her husband, even leaving the state with her four children in a futile effort to hide from him.

The recently released tapes of Nicole Brown Simpson's desperate 911 call to a police dispatcher resonated in Janet's brain, stirring memories of her own calls to authorities when her husband would explode with rage and hit her.

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