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Support Network: a safe haven for abused women, children

Donations to the Voice Holiday Fund help Support Network and other agencies serving local residents

For children staying at the YWCA's emergency shelter for domestic violence victims, this is a tough time of year.

"Everyone wants to be around their family, feel the warmth, the joy of the holiday spirit," said Amie McClane, the shelter manager. "It's hard to keep that alive in a shelter."

The 16-bed shelter is filled year-round with women and children who have made the leap from an abusive home into an uncertain future.

Staff from the YWCA's Support Network program make sure that Christmas is as happy as it can be for shelter residents, McClane said, from a big holiday party with games and dinner cooked by the staff, to an on-site holiday "gift shop" full of donated toys and clothes where residents can pick out presents. "My favorite part is seeing the children shop for their moms," McClane said.

A safe place to stay and a little holiday cheer is a small part of what the YWCA Support Network offers domestic violence victims. From art therapy to legal advocates, running a crisis hotline to providing counseling, the staff of 16 full- and part-time employees are there to help with the transition from living in fear to building a safe, healthy home.

The $1.2 million annual budget comes from a variety of local, state and federal sources, along with private donations. A portion of the contributions to the Voice's Holiday Fund go to the Support Network, one of seven local agencies that receive an equal share of donated funds.

In Silicon Valley, where housing costs are skyrocketing, the need is especially great. The average of 35 days spent in the emergency shelter is rarely enough time for victims to find affordable permanent housing and stabilize their finances, McClane said.

If there were more funding, the top priority would be housing, said Adriana Caldera, the director of the YWCA's domestic violence department.

The shelter, a secure building in a confidential location, is one of four in Santa Clara County. When all the shelter beds in the county are full, which is usually the case, Support Network staff looks for spaces in other counties or dip into an emergency fund to pay for motels. When the fund is tapped out, the staff helps create "very specific" safety plans for victims who may be staying with friends or even remaining in the home, McClane said.

Caldera said she'd like to have more funding for rental assistance, to help abuse survivors pay security deposits or the monthly utilities bill. Also on the wish list is a housing advocacy specialist who could work with apartment complex managers to find safe, affordable housing for their clients.

"It's a struggle to find permanent housing," Caldera said, pointing out that in this area, it's difficult for any single parent to support a family.

There's only one small transitional domestic violence shelter in the county, she said, and those beds fill up quickly.

"We're there for the emergency portion, when people need to remove themselves from danger," she said. "I'd love to see more transitional (services) -- more time for job training, to search for employment or educational attainment while they're still in a safe environment, where there are services for the children."

McClane said that, across the county's four shelters, last year about 1,200 victims had to be turned away due to lack of space.

"Homelessness is a crisis in itself; on top of that, if you add the trauma of domestic violence, it's almost a recipe for disaster," she said.

Helping victims cope with the emotional aftermath of abuse, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety, is a big concern. They're offered a host of services, from culturally appropriate counseling and art therapy to grounding techniques to quell anxiety.

"The children come in with a fear-based mentality, they may be clinging to their mother, having tantrums, acting out, or they're withdrawn," McClane said. "After a few weeks with no one getting hit or yelled at, they start to come out of their shells, there's laughter and play."

With the struggle to find a job and housing, sometimes children's emotional needs can be overlooked.

"It's really scary for children; they can't rationally or logically make sense of it. They start to internalize (the abuse) and think it's their fault," McClane said. "It's the same thing with victims. They believe the abuse was brought on by some action of theirs."

Domestic violence is a choice made by the abuser, she said. "It's easy to blame the victim, but the batterer is responsible for domestic violence. It's not a behavior, it's not the hitting, it's about how they use their power to control another person."

Prevention programs are among the first thing to get cut when money is short, said Caldera. Support Network has done some programs on healthy dating for eighth-graders in Cupertino, but outreach programs for younger children focusing on healthy relationships and bullying are needed, she said.

"We really need to invest in that," she said. "We need to be in schools more, having community conversations with young people and their parents."

Besides tackling victims' emotional needs, Support Network has to provide for more mundane and immediate needs. Like shoes and toothbrushes, bras and towels. Many people come through the doors with nothing but the clothes on their backs, Caldera said.

"They've left with the kids, and they're holding a teddy bear, in their pajamas, it's the middle of night -- so we try to have basic needs items available," she said. "A church bought us over 100 different sizes of shoes, because we don't know who's going to be coming in to our shelter."

The often-cited statistic still holds true, according to Caldera -- one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, and one in seven men. The shelter sees people from all walks of life.

"We've had people with very, very high incomes, but he might have frozen her assets, or she needs a confidential location because he might kill her or hurt her," said McClane.

The need for safety is paramount, and there are a number of security measures in place, from the secret location of the shelter to the special "escape" button on the Support Network's web page -- clicking it flips to a search page for "cookie recipes." When the Support Network's office was located in Mountain View, an abuser showed up outside with a weapon, but no one was hurt, said Caldera.

"We've had couple abusive partners show up at shelter," McClane said. "Luckily, police responded quickly, but it was terrifying."

Despite the stresses of the job, the work is rewarding, and the strength and resiliency of the survivors is inspiring, she said.

"I'd rather be doing it than not," McClane said. "Working in this kind of place can change your world view -- what some of them have gone through is just horrific."

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