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Su Casa Offers a Home Free of Violence

Times Staff Writer

For most of her life, she was her husband’s punching bag. She tried to run away from him again and again. But for the almost illiterate housewife with a second-grade education, there were few places where she and her three children could hide.

Once, she even fled back to her hometown in Mexico, hoping her parents or sister would provide a safe haven, she said. Instead, her husband tracked her down, talked her tradition-minded family into handing her over, forced her to return to Los Angeles with him and beat her again.

She thought she had no choice but to endure his abuse, she said, until a social worker appeared at her door and whisked her and her children away.

For the last few weeks, the 44-year-old woman and her daughters have been living in temporary housing provided by Su Casa Domestic Abuse Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping impoverished women escape from violence. The woman’s identity is being withheld at the request of her counselors.

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“We work to empower women to free them of domestic violence,” said Jan Laine, executive director of Su Casa. “All of our clients are low income.... All of our services are 100% free.”

Su Casa was founded 26 years ago by a domestic-violence survivor who began sheltering other victims at her modest home after finding that there was nowhere else for desperate and poor women to go. Today the organization has an annual budget of $1.2 million, an office in Long Beach and two shelters in Los Angeles County. It received $15,000 from the Times Holiday Fund this year.

“What we’re offering here is safety,” said Cindy Smith, manager of one of Su Casa’s shelters, where the woman and her daughters are staying.

Paramount to a battered woman’s survival is a complete break from her batterer, counselors say. So, elaborate procedures and precautions are taken to ensure secrecy. Women must sign a confidentiality agreement that they will never disclose a shelter’s location. A new client is instructed to take a cab to a meeting place. From there, a Su Casa representative picks her up and drives her to her new temporary home.

From the outside, Su Casa’s shelter is just another of Southern California’s ubiquitous Spanish-style homes on a quiet residential street. Inside, it is abuzz with activity.

On a typical day, women gather for individual or group therapy sessions with counselors while their children, in a separate classroom with a teacher, scribble and read books and lesson plans to help them keep up with their schooling. In the back of the compound are five bedrooms with bunk beds sleeping up to 25.

Part of a loose national network of groups devoted to helping battered women, Su Casa and other shelters often refer clients to one another. To avoid accidental discovery by a batterer, Su Casa’s shelters do not accept women from within a three-mile radius. Those victims are referred to agencies across town, and Su Casa houses women from as far away as across the country.

One Oregon woman found her way to Su Casa after she was unable to rid herself of a stalker in her home state.

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Another client came after her batterer showed up at her New York shelter and then tracked her through public records to a shelter in New Mexico. The former New Yorker was so terrified that after arriving at Su Casa, she changed her identity, staffers recalled.

Most of the women sheltered by Su Casa are immigrant Latinas. Counselors say domestic violence seems especially rampant among Mexican immigrants because Mexican law deems a woman to have abandoned her family and strips her of rights to her children and property if she leaves her husband without official permission.

So, many women of Mexican heritage -- such as the 44-year-old whose own family refused to help protect her -- remain with their batterers because they mistakenly believe U.S. law is similar.

Some women have arrived at Su Casa with pretty, clear faces, but concealed under their clothing are razor-blade slashes, burns and whip marks. The 44-year-old’s eyes are no longer black and swollen, but a facial scar remains.

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Abuse can be psychological. Batterers sometimes cut women off from family and friends. In this woman’s case, her husband tormented the children too. He withheld money for shoes, and one child, ashamed of showing up with bare feet, didn’t go to school for two months, the mother said.

The woman says that to this day, she has no idea who called the social worker and how he knew to rescue them. But she instinctively listened to him, and she and her children rode away in the social worker’s car with nothing but the clothing they wore.

After Su Casa, the woman hopes to find a low-rent apartment and help support her children by cleaning houses. In the meantime, she said, her Su Casa counselors have been helping rebuild her self-esteem.

“It’s a very good place for people here. They give you a lot of support, especially the children,” the woman said. “I learned that I’m valuable. I’m somebody. I used to be very afraid of him, but not anymore. I feel protected now.”

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Money raised last year has provided $1.4 million to help children in need in 2005.

The annual fundraising campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which this year will match the first $500,000 in contributions at 50 cents on the dollar.

Donations are tax-deductible. For more information, call (213) 237-5771.

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To give by credit card, go to latimes.com/holidaycampaign.

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