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Domestic Abuse Shelters Lack Services for Disabled

'There is an appalling degree of ignorance' on how to help victims with disabilities, one expert says.

June 14, 2004|Cynthia Daniels | Times Staff Writer

For three months, the 31-year-old woman suffered severe beatings from her boyfriend. And when the abuse ended, the threats began, forcing the Northern Californian to find safety.

Only for this woman, who has epilepsy, cerebral palsy and mild schizophrenia, the one place certain to provide counseling and protection was also the one place she feared.

"I was afraid to go" to a domestic violence shelter "because I'm disabled," said the woman, whose name was withheld at her request because she fears retaliation from her ex-boyfriend. "I didn't think they knew how to deal with me. If I had a seizure, I was afraid they would not know how to help me. I was worried about them not knowing."

So instead of relocating to a domestic violence shelter, she moved into a group home for the disabled.

"There is an appalling degree of ignorance in domestic violence programs on how to reach out and serve people with disabilities," said Dan Sorensen, founder and chairman of the California Coalition on Crime Against People With Disabilities. "There are efforts, but some are relatively feeble. A lot of people feel they cannot go to domestic violence centers because they are being turned away. They are hearing, 'I'm sorry we can't help you; we don't have the services.' "

Few domestic violence shelters and programs address the varied needs of disabled victims, experts say. Although state and federal funding to help these people has increased in recent years, most of it has gone to reimburse them for medical and relocation expenses and to law enforcement training. It has not gone to emergency shelters, where by most accounts, the need is large.

"Shelters are just barely surviving," said Margaret Nosek, executive director of the Center for Research on Women With Disabilities at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "They're struggling to pay their electric bills, let alone retrofit their shelter with a ramp or bring on extra services for women who might need them."

Nosek estimates that 10% of women living with disabilities are in abusive situations and that about half of those women have suffered physical or sexual abuse within the last year.

There are 104 government-funded shelters in California, according to the Statewide California Coalition for Battered Women. The coalition did not know how many of those were accessible to the disabled.

Federal civil rights law requires public and other government-funded buildings to be accessible, said Michael Mankin, chief of the Office of Universal Design, part of the California state architect's office.

But many shelters have inherited facilities that do not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act; nor do they have enough money to correct the deficiencies. Other shelters -- with long-term plans for upgrading their facilities -- tend to wait before constructing disabled-accessible structures, Mankin said.

He added that if a disabled woman called a shelter for help, she would typically be directed to a facility that could meet her needs. But advocates for disabled victims say getting through the door is just part of the struggle. Obtaining necessary services is the other.

"We just started including the disabled by saying places were 'handicapped accessible,' " said Peggie Reyna, director of services for the deaf and disabled at the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. "But that just means you can get your wheelchair through the door. You can't reach a sink; you can't get in the shower. It's so much more than one issue."

At most shelters, clients must care for themselves and their children, cooking dinner, cleaning and doing the laundry, said Reyna, whose program averages at least three new clients with serious disabilities every month.

A 1997 study conducted by the Center for Research on Women With Disabilities concluded that only 22% of shelters in the United States provided abuse-related services to disabled women and that only 5.5% offered personal-care attendant services.

One 37-year-old victim, whose name is being withheld because she fears for her safety, said she moved from one abusive relationship to the next and was stabbed and beaten by several partners.

In 1987 the woman, who is deaf, escaped her abusive husband, who knows sign language, only to return to him because she was uncomfortable at a shelter without devices for the hearing-impaired.

In 2000, she left Los Angeles and an abusive boyfriend who she said terrified her and seven of her children for almost seven months. Sadly, she said, the lack of interpreters for the deaf at domestic violence shelters has not changed.

"I could see the camaraderie, the friendship and the closeness between the other women," said the woman, who had an interpreter during mandatory weekly support groups and case manager meetings only. "They could speak, but I felt alone. I couldn't communicate. Groups of women would get together, talk for hours, knit blankets and make things and talk, talk, talk. But I couldn't be close."

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