You expect to be protected when you cry out for help. But what if the system itself turns you away?
Gina Kaysen Fernandes: On the job as a Ventura County, Calif., Sheriff's Deputy, Claudia Valenciana dealt with domestic violence on a weekly basis. She acquired the skills to investigate abuse cases, detect red flags and make arrests. But she missed the biggest warning signs in her own life. Clouded by shame and denial, Valenciana couldn't see that she too had become a battered mom. "I wasn't in the right state of mind," she says. "I didn't see myself as a victim."
When Valenciana finally reached out for help, she had nowhere to go. The local family violence shelter turned her away, assuming that, because of her profession, she could defend herself from an attacker. It's a predicament facing countless women and men who are in an abusive relationship and either work in law enforcement or have a partner employed in civil service: Domestic violence is estimated to occur four times more frequently in police families than in those of the general public, yet help is often denied.
According to victims' advocates, federally funded "safe houses" nationwide -- which receive funds from the Department of Justice -- regularly refuse services to battered women in need.
Valenciana began her tumultuous 18-month relationship with Robert "J.R." Perez back in September 2007. The two had been friends for ten years, and Valenciana knew that Perez -- who was also a cop -- had a history of domestic violence. "I thought I could help him get better," she says. "I thought I could handle this." But it wasn't long before verbal and physical abuse tainted the couple's love.
Valenciana's coworkers reported seeing bruises on her arms, wrists and biceps. Members of her own department responded to the 911 calls from the home Valenciana shared with her fiancĂ©. Her bosses knew about the violence, but instead of trying to intervene, they threatened to fire her. "By telling me I could not work and ordering other officers not to speak to me, my employer (effectively) helped my abuser segregate me from some of my closest friends," she states.
Fearing for her life, Valenciana attempted to end the relationship in March 2009. It ended dramatically: According to media reports, she fatally stabbed Perez in her kitchen after he tried to choke her. "All I could think of was that I wanted to live; that I needed to do everything I could to see my son again," a sobbing Valenciana said at a press conference.
The District Attorney determined that Valenciana had acted in self-defense and cleared her of all criminal charges. Despite the ruling, however, Valenciana lost her job and became blacklisted from working in law enforcement.
It appears that the Oxnard family shelter abandoned Valenciana in her time of need because of politics. She believes that the county-run program didn't want to take sides and alienate its relationship with the Sheriff's Department. "Political pressure is there," says Maria Lusia O'Neill, the program services coordinator for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Colorado. "Some people don't want to rattle the cages." O'Neill argues that the fear of losing state or city funds for not cooperating is always a concern, but not everyone caves to the pressure.
While working at other safe houses, O'Neill says that the police tried to intimidate her by demanding confidential information about the occupants. But she refused to give in to their demands. "Unless I get a warrant, we're not going to open the door and tell them who's there," she says.
Housing the battered partners of police officers is a huge safety hazard that's not taken lightly. "They have weapons," says O'Neill. "It's not safe for anybody -- staff or the other residents. And there are children there." As a general rule, anyone associated with law enforcement is sent to a shelter in another county or out of state, where the batterer has no known connections.
"They're more worried about what will happen to the shelter than to abuse victims," says Alexis A. Moore, the founder of the crime victims' advocacy group Survivors in Action. "We don't need false hope or revictimization."
Moore is also a domestic-violence survivor who was denied shelter in her time of need. In November 2004, she found the courage to leave her batterer and sought solace at a local shelter. She says that when she arrived at the facility's doorstep, bloodied and bruised, she "was tossed back like a piece of trash." The staff told Moore that her boyfriend's work as a private investigator made her too much of a risk to protect. Moore returned home to her batterer -- who punished her for trying to leave him by nearly beating her to death.
It took years for Moore to rebuild her life and realize that she was not alone in her struggle. Thousands of victims are denied shelter or services from publicly funded organizations that are supposed to assist them. Moore's work in the Domestic Violence Reform Movement has revealed that these victims' desperate cries for help from D.V. advocacy organizations are often ignored -- while the government continues to funnel billions of dollars into these programs.
Moore says that victims are routinely turned away from shelters with visible injuries, and that their phone calls and e-mails are never returned. She calls it the "domestic violence runaround." "They just pass the buck, ignore and refer," she says.
The national domestic-violence outreach campaign sparked by the passage of the Violence Against Women Act may be a victim of its own success. All the brochures, billboards and TV ads that were intended to raise awareness actually opened the floodgates to millions of victims. "There's a lot of need that's not being met," says O'Neill. "We're not swimming in money, by any means."
Critics argue that there's not enough emphasis on professional counseling to help domestic violence victims one-on-one. O'Neill says that the needs are huge and the resources are slim. "Legal services are needed, and we don't have the money to provide for that," she says, pointing out that, in some parts of the country, there are only two referral attorneys available for the entire state.
O'Neill works for a nonprofit organization that relies on foundations and local funding for support. "We don't deny services," she insists. But she concedes that budget cuts are impacting many programs that are designed to help battered women.
Activists feeling disillusioned by the process are starting to mobilize in an effort to change the system. "This is a marathon," says Moore, whose organization helps victims of crimes including abuse, stalking and cyberstalking. "I'm here for the long run." She's focusing her efforts on trying to change legislation.
Claudia Valenciana is still fighting to get her old job back through legal channels. Her hope is to continue reaching out to domestic-violence victims within the law-enforcement community. Valenciana says that she feels betrayed by the shelter that closed its doors when she was most vulnerable. "I donated money to this organization," she says. "[Yet] when I finally got the courage to ask for help, they turned me away."
|Gina Kaysen Fernandes is an award-winning documentary producer and a former TV news producer/writer. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.|