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Interview with Vivian Clecak

The co-founder of OC's Human Options, one of the state's most successful abused women and children programs, talks about domestic abuse and what the recent termination of state funding for domestic violence programs means for Human Options.

Ed Olen


That’s what most victims of domestic violence probably think of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger about now. Why? Because that’s also the exact amount he’s allocated for domestic violence programs in the new state budget. Despite the state Legislature submitting a budget that proposed a cut of only 20%, the governor relived his Terminator days and instead slashed 100% of the funding that helps keep life-changing – and often life-saving – shelters across the state afloat.

The cuts couldn’t come at a worse time, since historically, domestic violence abuse flares during periods of economic strife. And sure enough, a Mary Kay survey recently directly linked the flailing economy to a rise in domestic abuse. From September 2008 to May of 2009, more than 75% of 634 domestic abuse shelters nationwide reported an increase in the number of women seeking help. “Financial issues” was cited as the cause in 73% of the cases. This is exactly why some states, most notably New Mexico, are actually increasing funding for domestic violence shelters and programs.

But here in the Golden State, it’s estimated that up to half of the domestic abuse programs will now have to close their doors. In Orange County, which has four shelters for abused women and children, the governor’s surprise actions have thrown caregivers into a frenzied search for new funding and a panic over cutbacks in personnel and services. For instance, at Human Options, one of Orange County’s longest standing safe havens for victims of domestic violence, the state cuts will mean a loss of a full fifth, or $206,000, of its operating budget. It’s a blow that will land hard on the facility, which is much more than just a shelter for desperate battered women and their children.

Consider the fact that last year alone, Human Options served over 20,000 individuals. It did so by offering one of the most advanced and comprehensive battered women, children and seniors programs. These include an emergency shelter, in which women and children can stay up to 45 days. They receive food, clothing, counseling, legal advocacy, and help obtaining social services and permanent housing. If needed, emergency shelter clients can move on to Human Options’ Second Step, a transitional housing program where battered women and children can stay up to one year. Here they receive clothing and household goods, job training and career assistance, and finally, help in finding affordable housing. The bottom line, says  Vivian Clecak, its co-founder and current chief executive director, “Human Options helps women rebuild their lives.” And its success rate is a phenomenally high 92%, making it one of the most successful programs of its kind in the nation.

Just days after the governor’s devastating funding cuts announcement, Coast caught up with Clecak, a woman whose latest goal is to make sure the state cuts are felt as little as possible by the tens of thousands of mostly women and children her nonprofit organization helps annually.

How will Human Options deal with the loss of state funds?

I don’t know what we’re going to do yet. We have enough money to make it through the next couple of months and we don’t want to make any cuts because every one of our staff positions provides counseling or guidance towards women gaining self-sufficiency. We’re not just a shelter. We have a job developer and a legal advocate on staff. So if we have to cut some of these positions we would be cutting the ability to help women rebuild their lives. We’re not going to close the shelter, but we will be focusing on a number of things like finding funds from new sources, reaching out to individuals, community groups, and corporations, and applying for federal grants. We’ll do everything we can to keep these services for the people who need them.

Describe the typical Human Options client.
There’s no typical client. We have found that abuse doesn’t discriminate. It can happen to anybody: young, old, beautiful or not, any ethnicity, religion or social-economic status. It cuts across every group. But more poor women do come to the shelter. These are women who have suffered severe abuse – hospitalized, choked, paralyzed, major physical injuries. Many times, they’re also younger mothers with two or three little children. But right now we have four women over 55 in the shelter and we have four teenagers. So it shifts.

Is there a typical pattern as to how women findthemselves in an abusive relationship?
Not really, however, most women say that it isn’t apparent right away, that the men are very charming or really need to connect to the woman for emotional support. And the men’s aggression often doesn’t show up right away, so that by the time abusive behavior does start, the women can’t believe it. They go through periods of denial, minimization, rationalization; but then their entire life starts to fall apart and they begin to doubt themselves and lose their self-esteem.

Why is it that so many abused women don’t just leave their abusers at the first sign of trouble?
I’ve been in private practice for 25 years and I’ve never seen an easy divorce, even when there isn’t abuse. Marriage is a bond that’s hard to break and when the very person who says he loves you more than anything and pleads for you to stay is also the person who hits you, a combination sets in of what we call learned hopefulness – believing his promises that it will get better – and learned helplessness – being constantly put down and being told you’re stupid and ugly and could never get a job and slowly feeling that way yourself. Those are the psychological reasons. Then there are the very real practical reasons. He threatens to kill you if you leave. He threatens to kill your family. You’ve never worked and are afraid you can’t or you have a successful career and you’re ashamed and embarrassed to admit that you’re a victim. And if there are kids, you want your family to stay together.

So what is the breaking point for most abused women?
There are two common ones. The first is when a mom discovers that her kids are going to be or have been physically abused or psychologically hurt. And the other is the realization that “the next time he would have killed me.” In fact, many of the women tell us that if they hadn’t found us they would be dead.

Nationally, statistics say that most women go back to abusive relationships. How do you know that your clients don’t go back into abusive relationships?
Over the years we’ve hired higher university academics to track our shelter and transitional housing clients and we’ve found in four independent research projects since 1988 that 92% are violence-free one year or more after graduation and most of them are living independently. So we know the program works.

Your program strives to help women through financial independence and job training. The state's record unemployment rate combined with the funding cuts must make your goal more difficult.
It has made it very difficult. Especially here in Orange County, where one of the big road blocks is decent affordable housing. This is why transitional housing programs are so important and why the CalWORKs funding is vital. CalWORKs is the welfare to work program that gives women subsidies for childcare and training so they can get decent jobs and eventually afford to rent a decent home. Our counseling is crucial because without it, our clients won’t gain the sense of self to move forward. The healing for the children is vital because if the mothers can’t trust that their children are getting better, they won’t move forward.

What inspired you to get involved?
I grew up in Denver in a very loving family but my dad was an invalid. He came back from WWII with a serious disease, so all my life I knew what it was like for a family to need support from private and public social service agencies. We had help from the Veterans Administration, from the Disabled American Veterans organization and my dad went through physical therapy in a local social service agency. So I knew from the time I was young that I wanted to help others because I saw the difference that the social workers and physical therapists made for my family. So I started volunteering. I volunteered all the way through college and got involved in the ‘60s political movement, then went to graduate school in social work. And my first job out of graduate school was in an anti-poverty realm as a community organizer.

You also became a pioneer in the Orange County Department of mental health.
Yes, I was running the mental health clinic in Laguna Beach in 1981 and got excited about doing something to help battered women. Most people think that because of the affluence of Orange County that domestic violence is not a problem here, but during my time in Laguna, I saw that that was just not true. And I felt a need to help. So I and three others founded Human Options in 1981.

Has there been one experience that has been especially rewarding?
There have been so many but there is one that touched me in particular. This was an abused woman who had no training, no education, no self-esteem, and three kids. But because of Human Options, she started to believe in herself, she went back to school and became a nursing assistant. Then, a year and a half ago, when my husband had major surgery, she was the nursing assistant who came in the middle of the night and took care of him. She looked at me and said, “Vivian, you were my angel, now I’ll be your angel.”

Statistics show that one out of every three women will suffer at least one physical assault by a partner in her lifetime. These abuses affect not only them, but their entire family. Combine that with the recent budget cuts and there’s never been a better reason to help. Here are three easy ways you can get involved in the fight to preserve Human Options:

Go Online Visit Human Options' Web site, where you can donate money or sign up to volunteer. humanoptions.org

Donate Clothes Donate clothes for Human Options’ Classy Seconds, an upscale resale boutique on Costa Mesa’s 17th Street, which helps to raise funds for the shelter. 949.631.4696

Go to Lunch Attend the Fall Luncheon with  speaker Betty Mahmoody, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated and New York Times bestseller Not Without My Daughter, an inspiring account of Mahmoody’s daring 500-mile escape from an abusive husband across the mountains on horseback and on foot into Turkey. She and her daughter will be there, Wednesday, October 28 from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Balboa Bay Club. 949.737.5242 Ext. 211; humanoptions.org

        Finally, if none of those fit your philanthropic fancy, says dedicated Chief Executive Director Clecak, “they can even call me personally to discuss what they can do.” 949.679.9671


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