Safe, not sorry

WEAVE opens new safe house for abused women and children

WEAVE’s new safe house offers a protected environment for abused women and children.

WEAVE’s new safe house offers a protected environment for abused women and children.

Photo courtesy of Weave

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The interior of the new, $4 million safe house, a shelter for battered women and children in Sacramento, is like that of a lovely, modern, breezy resort. Built by Women Escaping a Violent Environment, it’s light, airy, charmingly decorated and practically self-sufficient in its in-house services.

But the women and children currently inhabiting it are experiencing about the furthest thing imaginable from a peaceful, planned vacation.

The first clue is the entrance to the compound, developed in a secret Sacramento location. There are formidable barbed-wire security gates and surveillance cameras, codes required for entering and an ever-vigilant staff.

The second is the somber and vulnerable demeanor of its inhabitants. Most of them have recently narrowly escaped serious injury or death at the hands of their abusers. They move about the luxurious space quietly and cautiously, in front of strangers, as if their former abusers might leap through the door any second.

Once placed in the safe house, clients must give up their personal cell phones (they can be traced by GPS devices, so cell-phone companies donate new phones without GPS) and sign a contract promising not to disclose their protected location to anyone.

They are there because their lives and those of their children are in immediate peril at the hands of a domestic abuser. According to Julie Bornhoeft, WEAVE’s development and communications director, the average victim is admitted, leaves and is readmitted to the safe house seven to eight times. It is assumed that the cycle of violence at home is longstanding and hard to break quickly.

The new safe house, which opened in July, has the capacity for up to 80 women and children. This makes it the largest battered-family shelter in Sacramento County, and second largest in California. The initial stay is usually 60 days, but depending on circumstances, clients can stay up to six months.

These new accommodations are an extraordinary improvement on the old safe house, built in 1985 on the same property, that only had five bedrooms. That building is going to be rehabbed into a K-12 classroom with a certified teacher for children. It will also have on-site health care and counseling and legal services.

That’s the good news about the strides WEAVE has made with its services.

The bad news is they may not be able to keep it up. This year, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated all state funding for the program that funds domestic-violence shelters—$20.4 million —with the stroke of a pen, using his line-item veto authority.

“We were appalled by the governor’s reckless action, in shock,” Sue Else, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence told The Associated Press.

For WEAVE, those cuts, combined with county cuts, eliminated one-third of their planned yearly budget, jettisoning about $600,000 dollars. They have had to radically cut back on their professional staff, including lawyers and professional therapists, and rely even more heavily on volunteers, who are widely known for their work as 24-hour crisis-line counselors (WEAVE fields up to 20,000 calls a year) and sexual-abuse response teams which guide rape victims through the hellish experience of reporting and being treated in the aftermath of rape.

“These cuts could not have come at a worse time,” said Beth Hassett, executive director of WEAVE. “We have always also relied upon the abiding generosity of corporate and individual donors, but in this economy, everyone has to give less.”

The Washington, D.C.-based national network, which conducts surveys of domestic-violence programs across the country, told the AP that California has the highest number of victims, reporting that “3,872 California victims were served during its 24-hour survey period in September 2008, more than half of them for emergency or temporary housing.”

But 700 clients during that 24-hour time frame were turned away, because of decimated staff numbers. Last year 113 people in California died in domestic-violence-related cases, according to the state attorney general’s office.

That number is expected to rise, with the ever-increasing density of Sacramento’s population, coupled with the insidious effects of a limping economy. In spite of the bad news, WEAVE’s staff remains hopeful and determined.

“We’ve been around since 1978—and we’re not going anywhere,” said Bornhoeft. “Right now we just have to tighten our belts and call upon our longstanding core of donors of over 1,700 individuals and corporations to see us through.”