Marin Abused Women's Services

Marin’s response to domestic violence was once the response found elsewhere in the country—silence. Abused women had nowhere to turn. Law enforcement agencies were loath to get involved in what they perceived as a household matter. Prosecution was almost nonexistent.

Today, the situation has improved greatly, thanks in large part to the efforts of Marin Abused Women’s Services. The 30-year-old San Rafael organization has helped thousands of women rebuild their lives. That’s not to say domestic violence is no longer a problem in Marin; it is — 12,000 local women (more than one out of every 10) will be beaten in their homes this year, and 30 percent of the women who seek treatment in Marin’s emergency rooms are battered.

Regardless of the statistics, says LeeAnn Bartolini, chair of the nonprofit’s board of directors, the stereotype persists that domestic violence doesn’t happen in affluent Marin. “We still hear that, 30 years later: ‘It’s not a problem in Marin County,’” she says. Or people think “‘it only happens in the Canal area; it only happens with poor people,’”
executive director Donna Garske says.

But domestic abuse plays no socioeconomic or racial favorites. In fact, wealthy women can be particularly vulnerable, Garske notes. The stakes are high for them: report an abusive husband and risk losing your social and financial standing. If they do report the abuse and seek divorce, their husbands have enough money to prolong legal proceedings for years.

Marin Abused Women’s Services offers two 24-hour hotlines, a 16-bed emergency shelter, transitional housing for women and their children, support groups, advocacy services and accompaniment to court proceedings, all with bilingual support for Spanish speakers. In its three decades of operation, the group has aided more than 130,000 women and 28,000 men.

The men’s program, ManKind, focuses on ending violent behavior. More than 75 percent of its graduates who are on probation for domestic violence do not get re-arrested four years after graduation, one of the best such statistics in the country. A parallel effort, WomanKind, exists for abusive women.

With an annual budget of $3.1 million (three quarters from the government, the rest from donations and grants), the organization has come a long way from its beginnings in 1977 when several local members of the National Organization of Women noticed that Marin lacked a way to help victims of domestic abuse and their families. They set up the group’s first 24-hour hotline, whose volunteers talked with abused women and regularly arranged to remove them from danger by picking them up in the middle of the night.

At first, lacking a shelter, the group relied on the generosity of family and friends to temporarily house these domestic refugees. “We would say, ‘We just need your basement for a couple of days,’” says board member Pat Assimakis, one of the founders. Within two years, the group had purchased a shelter but still had to persuade authorities—and the community at large—that domestic abuse was an issue worth paying attention to.

Over the years, the organization and its allies helped change both public perception and the law, until domestic violence became recognized as a crime. Now the group works with law enforcement, the district attorney’s office and other authorities to help abused women.

Yet clearly its biggest impact is personal—a fact evident in the success stories of those who were helped. Consider Tara. She was an accomplished mechanic when she met her husband. Once they married, though, he took over her life, refusing to let her work, isolating her from friends and family and controlling her finances. He beat her every day. Finally, seven months pregnant, she left, fleeing with her three-year-old daughter and finding her way to the Marin Abused Women’s Services emergency shelter. The organization helped her navigate the court system, arranged to have her accompanied to the doctor, and gave her transportation money so she could move in with a relative.

A letter from another woman summarizes how the organization helps people begin life anew. “We were saved by the women’s shelter,” it reads. “We had a chance to heal our mental and physical damages with all sources of help.… We were empowered again to see our strength and rebuild our positive minds and confidence. We were gently guided to overcome our difficulties, to find educational programs and to get job training. The program rebuilt our fragile family after we left our domestic violence home. Now we try to stand up again as a new family.”

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