Shasta County Organizations Target Area’s High Domestic Violence Rate

When a Forbes magazine article named Redding the country’s fifth-most-dangerous city for women last year, the ranking evoked a picture of men prowling a dangerous downtown, looking for random victims to rape, beat or even kill.

But local officials knew better. While they say the area’s domestic violence and sexual assault rates are indeed disturbingly high, the numbers in that report missed an important piece of the story — almost all of those assaults, rapes and other violent attacks reported were between intimate partners, they said.

A 2009 study in Shasta County showed that almost 29 percent of residents between 18 and 65 had experienced physical violence from their intimate partners, while only about 15 percent of the same age group statewide had been abused.

“The bottom line that came out of all of our discussions was that women were less safe in their own homes than they are outside,” said Michael Burke, director of the Shasta Family Justice Center.

And the local problem isn’t limited to romantic partners. Shasta County’s family violence statistics — including elder and child abuse, as well as sexual assault and domestic violence — are consistently around 50- 60 percent higher than the state average, said Angela McClure, program manager for the Shasta County District Attorney’s Office’s Crime Victims Assistance Center.

“It’s not just random. These are people they knew and loved and, at one point, trusted,” McClure said.

The troubling data have triggered conversation over what causes so much local violence in the first place, and what can be done to stop it.

“Is that part of our community culture? Every man’s house is his castle, and you don’t invade another man’s castle?” asked Art McBride, a volunteer at the Women’s Refuge and Family Justice Center. “Are we really doing anything to address the issue?”

Key factor is stress

Shasta County exhibits certain conditions experts say commonly are linked with abuse — rural living, drug and alcohol abuse, and lack of education all play into the likelihood that someone will be abusive.

Katherine van Wormer, author of “Death by Domestic Violence” and a professor of social work at the University of Northern Iowa, said there’s one thing those situations all have in common.

“The key factor is stress,” she said.

April Masini, a Naples, Fla.-based relationship expert and author, also said stress is a huge contributing factor.

“These assaults happen, often, when there is financial stress and relationship stress,” she said.

Shannon, 31, can speak to that theory.

When her second child with her ex-husband became ill and had to be placed into the intensive care unit, the anger got out of control. While her husband had started to abuse her about a month after they were married, his violent outbreaks spiked under the added stress of the illness, Shannon said.

“That sort of situation made it immensely worse,” she said.

But stress related specifically to unemployment or poverty can be especially dangerous, van Wormer said. With the addition of psychological stress to the financial pressure spurred by unemployment — which is notoriously high in Shasta County — abuse is often triggered.

“Not only stress, but self-esteem, (is) involved in unemployment,” van Wormer said.

Money woes

In fact, unemployment is the biggest risk factor for domestic homicide, she said. Domestic violence does happen across all incomes levels, van Wormer said, but is more frequent when there are financial problems.

And local law enforcement officials also cited money woes as a major trigger for violence.

“It causes stress in relationships,” said Anderson police Capt. Robert Kirvin. “Usually when they argue, it’s usually about money issues … so that does come into play, if one or both spouses have lost their job.”

Kirvin said other factors such as drugs and alcohol often trigger a violent episode.

“We don’t see anything new popping up,” he said. “It’s just the typical trends that we see.”

Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said most of the typical triggers — including substance abuse — tend to play into the domestic violence calls in his jurisdiction.

Anna, 31, said alcohol transformed her ex-husband into a more violent abuser. While putting her down was standard in the relationship, his drinking binges led to sexual assaults.

After she picked him up from jail following a drunken driving arrest one night, he became particularly violent. But she didn’t leave — even though she thought about it all night.

“I packed my bags and unpacked them like, four or five times that night,” Anna said.

She wanted to stick around to see what he had to say for himself, but then she settled into the old pattern of accepting his apologies and promises to change.

While there’s the chance Shasta County has higher recorded domestic violence incidents only because more people here report them, Kirvin said that’s probably not the case.

“The majority of the time when we do get the calls, the majority are reported by someone else — a neighbor or a family member,” he said.

At the same time, the well-known Women’s Refuge may encourage more people to report such crimes than in areas where there isn’t such an established domestic violence haven, he said.

Growing up with abuse

Then there’s the correlation between a history of childhood abuse or exposure to it, and growing up to repeat the pattern.

“Many times the abusers came from an abusive household when they were younger, and many times the victims came from an abusive household also,” Bosenko said. “They learned the abuse from a male to a female … they grew up in that kind of lifestyle.”

Shannon said her abuser grew up in a home where his mother beat his father.

Even growing up around other unhealthy behavior may make victims less able to spot potential abusers because they’re used to dysfunction, Anna said.

While her parents didn’t intentionally abuse her, they frequently criticized one another to her as they were going through their divorce, she said. She learned that bad-mouthing one’s romantic partner is normal, and says that’s why she didn’t avoid a relationship where that — and worse — was the standard.

“The fighting and the, ‘Your mom this,’ ‘Your dad that,’ it was something I was already living in,” Anna said. “When you grow up in an environment, no matter how good or how bad it is, you will repeat it because it’s comfortable for you.”

High-profile help

With the high incidence of domestic violence in Shasta County, local nonprofits dedicated to fighting it have become a well-known industry.

The Shasta Family Justice Center, open since September 2010, merged with the Shasta Women’s Refuge last year, giving victims of all kinds of family violence a one-stop resource with representatives from both agencies and others throughout the area under one roof.

The merger — which King said is the first of its kind in the country — has gained national attention, but also brought about skepticism from some.

“It’s somewhat unique amongst the domestic violence community,” said Ken White, development director for the organization. “We’ve kind of raised a lot of eyebrows, and folks are kind of looking it up and going, ‘How’s that going to work?’”

But the leadership team says the one-stop shop wins praise from clients and employees alike.

Volunteering lawyers and paralegals, case workers, food, clothing and more are all in the same building where victims are interviewed and photographed to gather evidence to be used when seeking restraining orders or in a court case against their abusers.

Clients are called “guests,” and the forensic interview rooms — equipped with the same technology used in police interview rooms — look like family rooms, with soft leather couches, serene photographs on the wall, potted trees and a box of toys in the corner.

Even the tiniest details are meant to inspire victims. A picture made by children at the nonprofit’s summer camp hangs on the wall of one room. “It’s not always going to be dark,” is written above a hand-drawn tree, one half barren and black, the other side lush, brown and healthy. In the children’s room, a stagecoach painted on the wall shows a woman holding the reins, the man next to her gazing adoringly her way. The painting originally had two serious-looking men in the front seat, but Burke said someone suggested they paint over them so that a woman was shown in a position of power.

“That’s very purposeful,” he said.

But the $ 1.5 million anti-violence powerhouse — about 80 percent grant-funded — is facing budget woes. The rough economy is forcing some donors to curb contributions, and grants are sometimes cut off or awarded to another organization.

Disappearing grants

Right now the children’s program at the shelter is facing about a $ 62,000 budget shortfall for the rest of the fiscal year after two key grants dissolved. The refuge lost one it had been receiving from First 5 Shasta after the organization decided to give the money to other children’s programs in the area, and another from the Emergency Housing and Assistance Program with the state stopped altogether.

“We were very hopeful that we were going to get it,” Women’s Refuge director Jean King said of the First 5 grant.

The instability of grants and the restrictions they bring on spending have spurred leadership at the organization to seek out a new fundraising model. While grants always will be needed, organizers are trying to focus more on major donors and planned giving programs to collect the donations that now only make up about 20 percent of its total budget.

The reality of the immediate gap for the children’s program — which teaches both mothers staying at the shelter and their children life skills to stop the cycle of abuse — still is frightening, officials say.

“We’re doing everything we can, because that program has to exist. Somehow, it has to be there,” said Angela Jones, director of the shelter.

The children’s program, now available only at the shelter, is so crucial the team hopes to bring it to the justice center’s main office downtown in a few years.

“They learn what it feels like to be safe, and it plants seeds and gives them hope,” Jones said. “So it’s incredibly important.”

One of the mainstays of the program is breaking the cycle of violence by teaching children how to identify and respond to their feelings. That’s vital, King said, since studies have shown that two-thirds of children raised in an abusive household either grow up to be abusers themselves or end up in abusive relationships, triggering the cycle all over again.

Protecting clients

When clients arrive at the center — accessible only by elevator — employees at the front desk ask them whether they think they’re being followed. A buzzer sounds every time someone gets near the elevator, and if employees see the abuser out the windows when the alarm sounds, they lock the doors.

“Clients feel very safe here because of that,” Burke said. The makeshift system has been needed only a handful of times since the center opened, he said.

The shelter — in an undisclosed spot away from the refuge and justice center’s main office — has 26 beds, four for infants. The facility almost is always at or over capacity, White said. Visits at the shelter are up 36 percent this year, while Jones said the shelter’s child population is up by 25 percent this year.

“The volume of people seeking help has gone up tremendously,” White said.

Bunk beds with pale green sheets line the walls of the shelters’ bedrooms, and in one, where a mother with two babies was staying on a recent morning, a couple of cribs were wedged so tightly between a pair of beds that there wasn’t any space to walk around them.

The process of leaving the life victims know — to come to a house shared with people they’ve never met can be terrifying, Jones said, even if it means the violence stops.

“It’s amazing when you think about how remarkable it is to take the step to come here in the first place,” she said.

Indeed, some, like Anna, decide to stay in an abusive relationship at first because it’s what they know, and others simply don’t feel they have any other options.

“The reason they go back is pretty understandable,” King said. “He’s apologized, or she wants to have a family and a home.”

In fact, it takes women an average of seven attempts before they successfully escape abusive relationships, King said.

Shannon stayed in a terrible marriage for several years and endured death threats because she didn’t know where to get help.

“I’ve lived here almost my whole life, and I had no idea all those services were available to me,” she said. “I didn’t know about Women’s Refuge, I didn’t know about any services that were available to me. I just didn’t know.”

Shannon said having resources to support herself triggered her to finally walk away. When she got a job and felt more secure about the future, she sneaked herself and her children out of the house when her husband went shooting with a friend.

Since then, she’s joined the local chapter of VOICES Against Family Violence, a group of abuse survivors who share their stories in public, of which Anna is also a member.

Shannon said the fear and ignorance in her life inspired her to warn others against that kind of situation — or if they’re in one, to get out.

“I think that’s the biggest thing, making it known to these girls that it doesn’t have to be just them,” she said. “There’s help. There’s tons of help.”

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