At just past 8 a.m. in a nondescript Santa Monica bungalow, four children sit slurping cereal and watching cartoons. Their mothers bustle about the house making beds, braiding hair, mopping floors.
But don't let this ordinary morning routine fool you. It belies the extraordinary circumstances that have drawn these children--strangers just a few days ago--to the same breakfast table.
They are here because they are in hiding from their own fathers, who have a habit of hitting their mothers, breaking bones and spirits. In some cases, their mothers have been kicked or cut or threatened with death, their kids fearfully cowering in another room.
More precisely, these young ones share their morning meal because their mothers, though beaten and beaten down, have taken a step toward reclaiming their lives: They have sought respite at the Sojourn battered women's shelter, one of the first such refuges to open in Los Angeles County and a leading force on the domestic-abuse front.
"It's a life-and-death movement," said Vivian Rothstein, executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center, Sojourn's parent agency.
At the shelter's secret location, women and their children who have nowhere else to go find a haven for four to six weeks. They are counseled, fed and clothed. They get help in obtaining jobs, financial aid, restraining orders or a ticket out of town.
Many arrive in a state akin to prisoners of war who have identified with their captors, brainwashed into believing they have triggered the abuse because they are stupid or worthless or ugly.
"This person is someone you've been madly in love with, and he turned into the devil," said one 29-year-old survivor of spousal abuse.
It's profoundly difficult to face. "Imagine, the man you've chosen out of every man in the world to love is out to destroy you," Rothstein said.
At Sojourn, women are gently reminded of something that might seem obvious to others: They did not deserve to be punished, as their batterers have told them, for such sins as cutting the carrots too thick or folding the towels the "wrong way."
"I've started to have trust and faith in myself," said a mother of two on her last night at the shelter after several weeks. "I found out who I was again." She also found a job and an apartment far away from the community where her husband lives.
Though the slayings of O.J. Simpson's former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and friend Ronald Lyle Goldman have made domestic violence the topic du jour, at Sojourn it is the same old story. Since 1977, the agency has been quietly helping women leave violent relationships.
Indeed, when a court ordered Simpson to pay $500 as punishment for battering his wife in 1989, the check went to Sojourn. Though such funds are desperately needed, staff members quietly refer to them as "blood money."
About half of Sojourn's $480,000 annual budget is raised each year from donations, with the centerpiece of the fund raising being an annual dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
After the Simpson case focused the spotlight on spousal abuse, the program's spokeswoman, Renee Williams, who recently left Sojourn for another agency, was a frequent guest on local and national television shows.
The publicity after the slayings also sparked an increase in calls to the shelter's 24-hour crisis and referral hot line, Williams said, with some batterers invoking Simpson's name. Callers reported that their mates were threatening "to do to you what O.J. did to Nicole," or more succinctly, to "O.J. you." Simpson, who has proclaimed his innocence, awaits trial later this month.
Last year, there were 70,000 domestic violence calls to law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles County and 241,000 calls statewide. But there are only 100 shelters statewide, 16 of them in Los Angeles County. Two-thirds of the women seeking refuge are turned away for lack of space.
Sojourn's name was derived from that of the slave liberator Sojourner Truth and the word sojourn --a temporary stay.
In addition to its work with women and children in crisis, Sojourn has also been on the forefront of the effort to have spousal battery taken seriously. It has lobbied for new laws and stronger enforcement and prosecution, while educating the public about the depth and breadth of a problem that had always been a family secret.
"Sojourn is always on the cutting edge," said its longtime advisory board chairwoman, Sheila James Kuehl, a nationally known expert on domestic violence. "Women at Sojourn were instrumental in crafting a response to the problem."
They still are.
The shelter, which has 16 beds, is only one aspect of the Sojourn program. Sojourn also has support groups for women who have been victims of domestic violence. Some of the groups are led by women who have left abusive relationships.
Sojourn is unusual among shelters in that it accepts the teen-age sons of battered women. Other shelters deem such children too close to manhood and often too difficult to manage in the communal living arrangements. Sojourn also allows men to volunteer in its children's programs, to illustrate that not all men are abusive. But the agency does not deal with the abusers themselves, who are referred to other agencies.
Whereas the shelter is the last resort for women who need to get away, the hot line, staffed by volunteers and staff, and the support groups offer everyday assistance to women who still live with their batterers. Because abusive men often threaten to kill a woman who reports the abuse, the hot line is sometimes the only outlet for women who can't marshal the resources to do anything else.
"Some women call weekly for . . . years," said Timmie Saltzman, volunteer coordinator for Sojourn. "Once you think you've heard every hot-line call, another one kills you."
Saltzman recalled the fashion model who said her husband gouged her eye out and slashed her face with a rock because she refused to wipe away tears shed when he slapped her. And the 65-year-old woman, abused for years, who said she couldn't leave because she was "imprisoned by age." And the woman who said her husband had locked her in the bathroom with the children, then set the house afire.
"She never called back," Saltzman said. (Hot-line staffers typically urge women in immediate danger to call 911.)
The hot line is run from a small room encased in bulletproof glass near the shelter's entrance. A daybed, where volunteers sleep between calls at night, and a desk are crammed into the small space.
The shelter's location is a closely guarded secret. Anyone revealing where it is can be charged with a misdemeanor. A shelter resident who tells her spouse, or anyone else, where she is staying, is immediately evicted; it's just too dangerous for everyone involved, Sojourn officials say. Even the location where support groups are held is not publicized.
Much abuse tends to occur over weekends, so Monday is the busiest day for the hot line, Saltzman said.
But on this quiet weekday afternoon, Saltzman gets a call from a woman who saw the hot-line number flash on the television screen during a talk-show discussion of the Simpson case.
Saltzman is alternately authoritative, sympathetic and blunt. First, she ascertains that the woman's drug-using, gun-collector boyfriend broke several of her ribs a year ago and repeatedly slapped her toddler for not using the toilet. The man, who is out on an errand, has been on a rampage again lately.
"You know you're in a life-threatening situation," Saltzman said emphatically.
After ending an intense 20-minute call, Saltzman slumps. "She's not ready to leave," she said. "She just wanted to talk. . . . This is the nightmare call you hope you never get."
The caller, who had never contacted anyone about her abuse, rationalized her decision not to leave by saying she didn't want to abandon her house and furniture--at least for now. On average, a woman makes six breaks with her batterer before finally calling it quits for good, experts say.
Sojourn staff members and volunteers ride out this prolonged process carefully, taking care to avoid judgments or to issue orders, even to women who acknowledge they have no intention of ending their relationships.
(Benumbed by being ordered around by their abuser, the last thing that works for battered women is having someone else tell them what to do.)
Maintaining this neutral pose isn't easy, especially for those who have already broken away from abusive relationships of their own.
"There are nights when I left and just cried, because I knew she was going back," said one support group leader, who freed herself from abuse seven years ago. "I could hear it in her voice."
This refusal to face reality and leave an abusive relationship is something that baffles many who are otherwise sympathetic to battered women. Why stay with someone who hurts you?
The answer can be as complicated as the relationships themselves, but is also simple: Women, most of them mothers, stay because they have no money, no job prospects, no self-esteem and, yes, often because they love the guy.
"When he was good, he was so wonderful I thought that was who the real person was," said one woman who attends Sojourn's support groups after splitting with her husband of 17 years.
"The largest growing percentage of homeless are women and children who have fled batterers," Williams said.
Women, Williams points out, are also afraid to leave because they know instinctively, and statistics bear out, that a battered woman's life is most endangered after she breaks off the relationship. Experts say a woman's risk of being slain by her batterer goes up significantly after she leaves him, because he is enraged at the loss of control over the relationship.
Moreover, batterers are often charmers, who sweep women off their feet and don't start abusing them until the ink on the marriage certificate is dry. After each outburst--and they escalate in severity--the abuser begins the wooing all over again, showering the victim with tears, flowers, kisses and promises never to hit her again.
"He tore my blouse, but he bought me three more" is how one woman put it. But, before she left him, her husband also broke her back, locked her in the garage and threatened to kill her if she called police.
Williams said focusing on why women stay in an abusive relationship is a roundabout way to pass judgment on the victim. The question society should be asking, she said, is why so many men beat, sometimes to death, the woman they love?
Experts say batterers are motivated by the desire to dominate and control their spouses, to treat them like personal possessions. But Williams and others say another reason abuse is so prevalent is that batterers can and do get away with it much of the time.
Williams believes that men would not abuse women if the sanctions against it were strong enough.
"How many men beat up their bosses?" she asked. Batterers "deal with anger in every other facet of their lives, but not with the women they live with. Why should they? They've gotten a signal from society."
For example, to persuade prosecutors to file spousal abuse as a felony, instead of a misdemeanor, continues to be a struggle, even though a similar assault against a stranger routinely merits the stiffer charge.
Kuehl said more felony prosecutions and stiffer sentences and fines are needed to send a signal to men that such violence is no longer tolerated. Though substantial progress has been made overall, the movement is still struggling with affecting the sea change needed to alter societal attitudes about the problem.
"I don't think there is a lot of disapproval still for a 'little violence,' " she said. "When you get in the arena of pushing and slapping, I don't think people realize . . . that is still domestic terrorism."
And the mothers aren't the only ones who suffer. Back at the shelter, breakfast is over, and some of the kids run outside to play. But one little girl, her beautiful brown eyes filled with sadness, sits by herself on the couch, hugging a stuffed animal.
Her breakfast may have been normal, but her life--well, that's another story.