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Governor's cuts a 'death warrant for battered women'

Posted: August 8, 2009 8:02 p.m.
Updated: August 9, 2009 4:55 a.m.

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In July, Giuliana Ruby Perrotta was beaten and strangled to death in her two-story home on a quiet Canyon Country cul-de-sac.

Sheriff's deputies found the 47-year-old's brutalized body inside the house the next morning. Her husband and killer, Giacchio Perrotta, hanged himself in the couple's back yard.

A couple of months earlier, another Santa Clarita Valley woman's longtime boyfriend shoved her to the ground and beat her in front of their two young children. He pummeled and kicked her, leaving her face bleeding and broken in five places.

The economic recession has ratcheted up tensions in homes, leading to a national increase in the quantity and severity of domestic abuse incidents, experts say.

At the same time, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has cut most state funding for domestic violence rescue programs - about $16.3 million - to help close an estimated $42 billion state deficit. The move has put many domestic violence centers, including the SCV's center, at risk of massive cutbacks or outright closure, unless lawmakers come through with a rescue bill.

"As far as I'm concerned, the governor just signed a death warrant for battered women," said CarolAnn Peterson, a longtime advocate for battered women and a professor of social work for the University of Southern California.

"Where do you go at midnight with three kids in a crisis and there's no shelter?" she said. "The reality is going to set in that there's nowhere to go, and she'll go back home."

SCV shelter activity up
The SCV Domestic Violence Center received more than 900 hotline calls last year. So far this year, it has received 868.

Executive director Nicole Shellcroft rattled off details about some of her nearly 1,000 clients a year, most of whom live in the Santa Clarita Valley:

One had all of her teeth knocked out over the course of her beatings.

Another woman had to have genital reconstructive surgery after her abuser repeatedly raped her with a large object.

Others have been tied up and left for days or beaten, raped and sodomized in front of their children.

Future clients might not be able to receive much, if any, help after the governor's cuts. The SCV Domestic Violence Center will lose 46 percent of its $450,000 annual budget, about $207,200.

Last year, a 10 percent cut to its state funding forced Shellcroft to let some of her staff members go. The center's office had 12 full-time staff members until a recent round of layoffs; now she has seven full-time and two part-time.

"I'm understaffed," she said. "We've had double the number of new intakes this month compared to last."

Staff members answer a 24-hour emergency hotline. They manage a 24-hour temporary shelter home for battered women and children who have nowhere else to go. They provide outreach and counseling services.

"For (our clients) and their kids, they have no place on this planet where they are safe."

Even larger shelters with bigger budgets are concerned they won't be able to handle the surge in clients on a far tighter budget.

At Women Empowered Against Domestic Violence, the only center serving Sacramento County, the state cuts will also take a heavy toll.

"We already have had a waiting list for years, and now people are just going to wait longer," said Beth Hasstet, executive director of WEAVE. "Short of completely shutting something down, there's nowhere left to cut from."

Hassett said as smaller centers - which count on the state funding for 50 to 80 percent of their budgets - shut down, their clients will crowd the shelters that remain.

"There's really going to be a domino effect throughout the state," she said.

Lawmakers push rescue bill
The threat to shelters has driven local Republican state Assemblyman Cameron Smyth to rally with an unlikely partner, state Assemblyman Leland Yee, D-San Francisco.

"Issues like this clearly cross all party lines," Smyth said. "Domestic violence is occurring in all corners of our state - in all races and all socioeconomic classes. Everyone is affected. To completely eliminate funding for shelters is not why I came to Sacramento," said the former Santa Clarita City Council member.

The bill would, for this year alone, restore 80 percent of the state's funding to the shelters using money from the California Victim Compensation Fund.

Smyth said he and Yee hope to push the bill through the Legislature quickly once state lawmakers return to the capitol Aug. 17.

‘You feel like you're alone'
Connie Sparks, 42, runs a successful consulting business in Castaic.

She often hosts seminars in which she teaches women how to become financially independent.

Some facts about her that are slightly less apparent: She can't feel the left side of her lips. Her boyfriend's fists damaged a nerve in her face. She has back problems, too, from being slammed up against the wall too many times by another lover.

She holds high praise for the doctors who stitched shut a massive wound on her face after the father of one of her children bit into her cheek.

She and experts explained often complicated dynamics that keep victims of abuse under the batterer's control.

It's often a blend of isolation from friends and family, shattered self-confidence, conflicting emotions of love and hate and financial dependence.

Sparks' first violent relationship began when she was 15 years old. Her boyfriend got drunk and high and beat her severely, and she had three daughters with him.

Her next violent relationship lasted 11 years. Her fourth daughter came from him.

"I kept myself away from my family for many years because I was ashamed," Sparks said. "The women in my family are very strong-willed women. So for me not to be able to hold my ground and walk out of that relationship when (the violence) first occurred, there was a lot of shame there. A lot of shame. ... You feel like you're alone. Like you're in this by yourself."

Sparks never even knew domestic violence centers existed before she had already left her last abuser. She has since become a board member and avid supporter of the SCV center, and is currently in a happy relationship.

"I was able to pull myself through that situation and use all of that energy and anger that I had and turn it into something positive," said Sparks, president of the Wade Institute.

But many never escape the violence.

In the case of the Perrottas, who were found dead in their Canyon Country home last month, the couple had been in the middle of a divorce, investigators said.

Lt. Brenda Cambra of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station, who is also a member of the SCV shelter's board of directors, said it's always a concern that as the economy gets worse, it will lead to more violence in homes.

"When people aren't safe in the home," Cambra said, "that's contrary to anything we Americans believe in."

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