“Do you want to drive me crazy or what?” he shouted, grabbing her hair and pulling her down on their bed. Then he pounded her face into the mattress until her nose started bleeding. She got away, found her car keys and headed out the door. But his car was blocking hers. Back inside, he threw her down on the sofa and started choking her. As she was about to lose consciousness, she thought, Where am I going? I can’t leave the kids with him.But then he let her up, mockingly declaring, “No, I’m not going to kill you today. Not now. Go take a shower. We’re going to work.”The next day, a Saturday, she went to Sacred Heart Church in Lancaster and prayed, “Oh, God, help me. I don’t know what to do anymore. What should I do?” And she thought she heard the priest say during his homily something about “It’s time to leave.” For a moment, she did actually think about going to the local hospital, but then caught herself. They’d call DPSS (Department of Public Social Services) to take their four-year-old girl and seven-year-old boy away.So Sara stayed, enduring more and more abuse until the spring, four months later. That’s when at a Sunday Mass she was sure she heard the priest say once again, “It’s time to leave.” He wasn’t talking about domestic abuse, being a battered spouse or anything like that. He was just commenting on the Scripture readings. But those were his very words.This time they made her cry hard and realize, Yeah, it is really time to leave. I don’t care what anybody has to say. I’m going to do this for my kids and myself. Still, when the time came to go she was scared the most and felt really vulnerable. And she had second thoughts, knowing this ultimate act of breaking away from her husband’s control could be fatal. But on a day in late May, when he wasn’t around, she took the kids and just left. They found an emergency shelter to stay at for a while, then were accepted by the Good Shepherd Shelter for Battered Women with Children in Los Angeles, a long-term transitional shelter. Over a year’s time, Sara and her children finally began to heal. Recently, the single-parent family moved out of the shelter, with plans to settle in Northern California. Though CalWORKs’ GAIN (Greater Avenues for Independence) program and its Welfare-to-Work component, she wants to work part time and go back to school to become a social worker. Sara hopes to help children who have been abused growing up like she was. She as well as her kids are all excited. “We have a place to go to and a place to sleep — a house. I know that I can do it all by myself,” the 30-year-old woman says with determination all over her face. “I couldn’t say that a year ago. No, I didn’t have the confidence. I didn’t have me! I wasn’t me. Now I am.” Breaking awayThe CEO and administrator of the Good Shepherd Shelter says Sara is pretty typical of many battered women with children. Lois Lengel points out how hard it is for these mothers to really break away from their husbands or partners. “You have to remember that she married him and felt that she was going to raise her family with him and live together their whole life,” the former businesswoman notes. “And he was probably charming at times. You will find that most batterers seemed to be very nice people, but in truth they’re very bad family people.“And then there’s the control and fear issues. Because abuse is like rape. It’s a control issue: ‘How can I control you? And so I put you on the ground emotionally, physically, and at that point then I can control.’ So therefore when she leaves, that is when her vulnerability becomes extremely strong because the control is broken. That’s why it sometimes takes six or seven times at trying to leave before the woman actually leaves.”Lengel has heard all the old saws about domestic violence. First, that “battering” really overstates the case because few women are actually beaten. Second, that it’s a family matter and even the Bible says wives should be subservient to their husbands. Third, that it only happens to low-income, mainly minority families. Fourth, that battered women “ask for it” by provoking their mates. And fifth, that it can’t be all that bad or she wouldn’t stay with him. They’re all myths, she stresses, and do great harm to both the battered woman and her children by shoring up a cycle of violence. “When we interview women who want to come here, we always ask: ‘Why are you leaving him now? What makes it different this time?’” the CEO observes. “And the answer is almost always concern for the children. She sees that it’s hurting them. She starts to see this aggression in the boys or the girls taking on her attitude of cowering. And she realizes that unless she does something to protect them that this cycle will continue.“That’s why she’s so brave. She leaves everything. She has to leave her own family, her friends, her home, her surroundings. So it’s a huge step. They are my heroes. I know the tearing of their hearts. But they do this because they believe if they don’t it’s going to hurt their children. And they’re right. If we don’t get to these children while they’re young, we’re going to perpetuate this domestic violence. And so for me, it’s such important work.”Since 1977, the Good Shepherd Shelter, which is run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in their former convent for contemplative nuns, has provided long-term supportive housing and care for battered women and their kids. Families, who are referred by emergency shelters, live independently not in rooms but in one of the shelter’s 12 apartments, where they can establish new routines, traditions and goals. An adult learning center offers mothers — whose sense of self-worth has usually been decimated — the tools to develop as persons, parents and providers. An emphasis is placed on practical training, from household and financial management, which these totally controlled women have rarely done, to developing job and computer skills.Children in grades K-5 attend an on-site school associated with the Los Angeles Unified School District. There is individual and group therapy, too, for residents with the goal of building self-esteem, healing emotional scars and teaching healthy ways of interaction. Case managers work closely with families on legal, government assistance, job and future housing issues. “We really say ‘this is your home,’” reports Lengel. “It’s the mother’s responsibility to take care of her kids. We try to help them get whatever help they need, including food stamps or CalWORKs benefits. But we don’t tell them what to do. We just offer options. And we don’t always agree with their options, their choices. But that’s not our decision to make. Because we’re trying to raise them up to the point where they’re secure in making their own decisions.”The mothers, in fact, decide when they’re ready to leave, with the average stay ranging from a year to 18 months. Often the shelter helps them with donated furniture and other household items before they move into their own apartments. Aftercare, which is critical for these struggling families, is also offered to make the transition back into society a lasting success.A changed lifeThe first couple of years with her husband were “really nice” for Reyna. “You can’t believe how good he was,” she recalls with a grin. “But after that he started drinking, not coming to the house and started getting controlling of everything.”He also started becoming jealous and would confront her when she got off her restaurant job, accusing her of being with other men and calling her terribly degrading names. At first she thought he would get over his jealousy, but it only got worse. One time he broke all the windows in their house. She tried to leave him three times, but he would always find her and the five children. Now he was screaming at her, telling the kids bad things about their mother and hitting her. He would even take out a gun and threaten to kill her. “So I went back with him ’cause I was so scared,” she explains. “When he’s drunk he doesn’t know what he’s doing. We were living in El Monte when one time he just grabbed me by the neck and he told me, ‘I’m going to kill you. You’re not going to live no more. You’re not going to have your kids no more.’”That day Reyna was so afraid she gathered up her four girls and her boy and went out on the street. But she had no place to go, so she and the kids wound up staying in a friend’s garage. The next day one of her daughters told her teacher, and soon a social worker showed up. He said she could either go back to her husband or her children would be taken away. So she went back a final time, but then made a big decision.“That day changed my life,” she confides. “I went to an emergency women’s shelter in Long Beach, and a month later I came here in March 2004.”Little by little, the fear left her. She spent a lot of time re-bonding with her children, who went to school in adjacent rooms. She was learning English and also how to use a computer. She went to counseling sessions and parenting classes along with studying math, science and history. “Being here also helped my kids,” she points out. “They were more independent. Before they were too close to me. We learned how to eat together, how to set goals, how to take time out when someone was mad. We learned a lot. And I learned how not to be scared of no one, and especially of him.”After almost a year and a-half at the Good Shepherd Shelter, she and her children moved out. She fulfilled her lifelong dream of starting a catering business called “Reyna’s Tacos,” cooking and serving Mexican food at birthday parties, weddings and quincenearas. Today, she also works three days a week as a cook at the shelter. “I feel like the most lucky person in the world ’cause they changed my life,” she says with a brimming smile. “They gave me that opportunity when we first came here, and I still can come and talk about my problems. My kids are still with me, and they have their own kids now.”To make donations or find out more about the Good Shepherd Shelter, call (323) 737-6111 or visit www.goodshepherdshelter.org. The shelter’s annual gala is Oct. 15. For information, contact David Rodrigues, (714) 293-7383 or email [email protected]. {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0909/shelter/{/gallery}