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‘Alone in this’

Posted: September 15, 2009 11:18 p.m.
Updated: September 16, 2009 4:55 a.m.

The Domestic Violence Center of Santa Claria Valley Clinical Director Jean Albrent speaks on the phone in the front office of the facility that must be evacuated by Oct. 1 due to state funding cuts.

 

After state Senate Republicans blocked a bill that would have restored funding to domestic violence shelters statewide, the local support center prepared Tuesday to lay off most of its undersized staff and leave its modest strip mall storefront to search for a new cost-free location.

On Tuesday, staff members at the Domestic Violence Center of the Santa Clarita Valley packed boxes, but they didn't know where or when those boxes will be unpacked.

"If we don't find a donated space to house our offices, then we will be forced to put most of our stuff in storage and operate out of our (secret) shelter house, which takes us out of the public eye," said Nicole Shellcroft, executive director of the center, who was desperately lobbying in Sacramento on Tuesday.

The shelter house is kept secret to keep abuse victims safe.

Domestic violence programs across the state would have been spared major pain if lawmakers had passed a bill co-authored by state Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita. The bill would have restored $16 million in funding to the centers by shifting pre-existing funds without raising taxes.

California Senate Republicans said they didn't have a problem with the bill itself - rather, they blocked this and 19 other bills die to retaliate against their Democratic adversaries in an unrelated budgetary dispute.

"We had a series of commitments from the Democrats that were not fulfilled," said State Senator George Runner, R-Lancaster, whose district includes most of the Santa Clarita Valley. "If the Democrats would have fulfilled their commitment, I would have supported the bill."

Runner abstained from voting on the bill, which needed support from two-thirds of the Senate before heading to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk. State Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Thousand Oaks, also abstained from voting on the domestic violence bill.

Strickland, whose district includes a small portion of the Santa Clarita Valley, was unavailable for comment.

Time runs out
On Tuesday, Jean Albrent, clinical director at the SCV's Domestic Violence Center, began packing up for the final time.

"I'm out of a job come Oct. 1," she said.

Albrent functions as the center's social worker. When the cuts to the program looked inevitable she started telling her clients that the center could be moved.

However, Albrent couldn't say where.

"That makes our clients uncertain and unsure," she said.

With the news that California lawmakers failed to restore funding for the center, staffing - already down 30 percent - will be reduced again from five full-time and five part-time staffers to two full-time and four part-time employees.

The center will try to operate the shelter, hotline and outreach program 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"There are hours we will go un-staffed," Albrent said.

Crisis causes cuts
The Domestic Violence Center was prepared for what it thought was the worst-case scenario as the economy melted and the state fiscal crisis ballooned.

Officials there expected its $220,000 state grant to get slashed to $169,000.

"We thought, like everyone else, we were getting a 20 percent cut," Albrent said.

But Schwarzenegger cut much deeper, eliminating all state funding for domestic violence centers with his line-item veto power.

The cuts send the wrong message to the families who are victims of domestic violence, Albrent said.

"Our clients often feel that they are alone in this. They feel ashamed," she said. "To say the state's paying nothing to support them and their families, reinforces that feeling."

Moral obligations
The domestic violence bill, coauthored by assemblymen Smyth and Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would have given the center enough money to maintain its skeletal staff and keep its doors open at its current location.

California Senate Republicans crushed the bill after pledging not to pass any legislation during marathon session that lasted into the early morning hours on Saturday, Smyth said.

"People voted along party lines," Shellcroft said. "The bill didn't die on its merits. It got caught up in politics."

Republicans were committed to getting $100 million in first time homeowner rebates, which the Democratic majority cut to $70 million. Senate Republican leaders were also committed to ending a state-run tax filing service and changes to the sales tax formula, Runner said.

However, Smyth said his Republican colleagues in the State Senate should have let the domestic violence legislation slip through the blockade.

"I think restoring funding for domestic violence shelters is a reasonable exception," he said.

Runner said Republicans were committed to standing strong on the budget and are justified in blocking the bill to retaliate against the Democrats.

"That's important to how Sacramento works: When people make agreements, they need to live up to it," he said. "We weren't going to make any exceptions."

Runner's decision not to support the bill disappointed Domestic Violence Executive Board Vice President Gail Ortiz.

"Cameron Smyth broke traditional party lines to partner with Senator Yee, a Democrat. He made an impassioned plea to the Assembly," she said. "It's disheartening to see the legislation play partisan politics with this bill."

Runner cited moral grounds for his position.

"If the Democrats say they are going to do something, they are morally obligated to follow through," he said. "And if they don't, I am morally obligated to oppose them."

Violence racks community
Domestic violence has risen in the Santa Clarita Valley in the last six months. And as the number of domestic violence incidents has risen, the brutality has increased as well, Albrent said.

The Santa Clarita Valley has seen at least three deadly domestic incidents so far this year.

The center could also scrap one of its outreach programs that educates teenage girls about dating violence, Albrent said.

That could trigger a ripple effect and lead to more cases of domestic violence in the future.

"The shelter is the last resort," she said. "They come here after the act was already committed. Our job is to try to stop it before it happens."

With California lawmakers failing to restore the funding, Ortiz and other board members said they must turn to the community to help some of the most vulnerable people in the Santa Clarita Valley.

"We've had women show up with a suitcase in one hand and a kid in the other," Ortiz said. "We want to make sure we are there for them."

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