California Survivors of Domestic Violence Take Another Hit

09/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last year a divorced mother of three young children received an order of protection against her former husband, whom everyone familiar with the family had labeled "dangerously out of control." Despite the order of protection, she was so terrified of him that she changed the locks on her home and kept her children inside at all times. In April this father of three returned to her home, banged on her door, and shouted repeated threats. When she refused to let him in, he returned with an ax and broke down the door. Police later found the children cowering under the bed where their mother had hid them, before she was dragged outside and brutally murdered in front of her home.

For a state with an annual budget of $85 billion, $20 million sounds like less than a rounding error. Yet that amount constitutes the state's entire funding for 94 shelters and centers for domestic violence victims. Or rather, the state's former funding. On July 28, 2009 Governor Schwarzenegger, while flippantly characterizing his budget as "the good, the bad, and the ugly," asserted that many painful cuts were necessary even in health and human services programs.

Wielding his line item veto, Governor Schwarzenegger gutted all state funding for shelters. The Governor effectively told victims that these shelters would now be closed and that henceforth they should find alternative accommodations if they wanted a safe haven, as their governor could not help them. Worse than bad or ugly, Schwarzenegger's budget cut is lethal.

In the past, Governor Schwarzenegger has championed the rights of victims of domestic abuse. With this single callous act, he has compromised his legacy. Should shelters be forced to close or curtail their services owing to a lack of state funding, the Governor will have turned countless women and children into permanent prisoners. What are they going to do without shelters? Where will they go? Back to the homes from which they so bravely fled?

For these women who must escape life-threatening escalations of violence, these shelters are not a dispensable luxury. Women who enter protective shelters do so as last resort; they go to shelters because they have nowhere else to go -- to survive. And a staggering 85 to 90 percent enter with young children.

Millions of dollars of government and private funding, as well as countless volunteer hours, have been spent over the last decade to convince women that it is all right to leave the men who batter them -- a sea change in social thinking. They have been promised that they will find shelter, services, and people who genuinely care to support them as they make the agonizing journey to a more permanent and independent solution. In one stroke, all that effort and money will have been wasted.

It takes a lot for victims of domestic violence to come forward. Often when neighbors call the police, these women, in an attempt to avoid a worse beating, try to convince the arriving officers "the problem has been resolved." A victim of domestic violence flees her home and enters the system because she fears for her life. And now, when a woman in California finally summons the courage to escape, she will discover that she has nowhere to go.

Tragically, domestic violence skyrockets during times of economic hardship. National abuse hotlines -- also facing cutbacks -- as well as police departments around the country have reported dramatic increases in domestic violence. Record home foreclosures, surging unemployment and mounting job insecurity become family powder kegs. How cruel an irony that the economic downturn that has led to a sharp increase in domestic violence is now cited as the reason California cannot help the victims.

Good times or bad, there is no remotely credible excuse for California -- the world's fifth largest economy -- to deny essential shelter programs. Given the way of the political world, we all know that both parties have protected numerous frivolous sacred cows in the budget at costs far exceeding the $20 million at stake. Don't believe otherwise for a second. The budget is in large measure a fight over which competing special interests get protected, and to what extent.

Yet, even in the rough and tumble real world of politics, it is indecent and beyond the pale for the Governor to hold the lives of women and children hostage. This is may as well be criminally negligent homicide -- dressed up as state fiscal policy. It is time for all those deeply committed to this issue to prove to the Governor that he made a dire political miscalculation, and a moral one.

Aryn Quinn is the CEO and Founder of Beauty Cares, a nonprofit organization founded to support women who have suffered domestic violence.