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COVER STORY : Secret Sojourn : In a Nondescript Bungalow at an Undisclosed Location in Santa Monica, Abused Women andTheir Children Find a Haven and a Place to Start Over


At just past 8 a.m. in a nondescript Santa Monica bungalow, four children sit slurping cereal and watching cartoons. Their mothers bustle about the house making beds, braiding hair, mopping floors.

But don't let this ordinary morning routine fool you. It belies the extraordinary circumstances that have drawn these children--strangers just a few days ago--to the same breakfast table.

They are here because they are in hiding from their own fathers, who have a habit of hitting their mothers, breaking bones and spirits. In some cases, their mothers have been kicked or cut or threatened with death, their kids fearfully cowering in another room.

More precisely, these young ones share their morning meal because their mothers, though beaten and beaten down, have taken a step toward reclaiming their lives: They have sought respite at the Sojourn battered women's shelter, one of the first such refuges to open in Los Angeles County and a leading force on the domestic-abuse front.

"It's a life-and-death movement," said Vivian Rothstein, executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center, Sojourn's parent agency.

At the shelter's secret location, women and their children who have nowhere else to go find a haven for four to six weeks. They are counseled, fed and clothed. They get help in obtaining jobs, financial aid, restraining orders or a ticket out of town.

Many arrive in a state akin to prisoners of war who have identified with their captors, brainwashed into believing they have triggered the abuse because they are stupid or worthless or ugly.

"This person is someone you've been madly in love with, and he turned into the devil," said one 29-year-old survivor of spousal abuse.

It's profoundly difficult to face. "Imagine, the man you've chosen out of every man in the world to love is out to destroy you," Rothstein said.

At Sojourn, women are gently reminded of something that might seem obvious to others: They did not deserve to be punished, as their batterers have told them, for such sins as cutting the carrots too thick or folding the towels the "wrong way."

"I've started to have trust and faith in myself," said a mother of two on her last night at the shelter after several weeks. "I found out who I was again." She also found a job and an apartment far away from the community where her husband lives.

Though the slayings of O.J. Simpson's former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and friend Ronald Lyle Goldman have made domestic violence the topic du jour, at Sojourn it is the same old story. Since 1977, the agency has been quietly helping women leave violent relationships.

Indeed, when a court ordered Simpson to pay $500 as punishment for battering his wife in 1989, the check went to Sojourn. Though such funds are desperately needed, staff members quietly refer to them as "blood money."

About half of Sojourn's $480,000 annual budget is raised each year from donations, with the centerpiece of the fund raising being an annual dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

After the Simpson case focused the spotlight on spousal abuse, the program's spokeswoman, Renee Williams, who recently left Sojourn for another agency, was a frequent guest on local and national television shows.

The publicity after the slayings also sparked an increase in calls to the shelter's 24-hour crisis and referral hot line, Williams said, with some batterers invoking Simpson's name. Callers reported that their mates were threatening "to do to you what O.J. did to Nicole," or more succinctly, to "O.J. you." Simpson, who has proclaimed his innocence, awaits trial later this month.

Last year, there were 70,000 domestic violence calls to law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles County and 241,000 calls statewide. But there are only 100 shelters statewide, 16 of them in Los Angeles County. Two-thirds of the women seeking refuge are turned away for lack of space.

Sojourn's name was derived from that of the slave liberator Sojourner Truth and the word sojourn --a temporary stay.

In addition to its work with women and children in crisis, Sojourn has also been on the forefront of the effort to have spousal battery taken seriously. It has lobbied for new laws and stronger enforcement and prosecution, while educating the public about the depth and breadth of a problem that had always been a family secret.

"Sojourn is always on the cutting edge," said its longtime advisory board chairwoman, Sheila James Kuehl, a nationally known expert on domestic violence. "Women at Sojourn were instrumental in crafting a response to the problem."

They still are.


The shelter, which has 16 beds, is only one aspect of the Sojourn program. Sojourn also has support groups for women who have been victims of domestic violence. Some of the groups are led by women who have left abusive relationships.

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