Project Sanctuary has never been awash in cash since a handful of locals started it up as a grass-roots domestic violence center in Ukiah in 1976. But over the years the scrappy little non-profit shelter has gotten by, cobbling together grants from the feds, the state, the county, and the fruits of its own fundraising efforts, eventually merging with Fort Bragg’s rape crisis center in the 1980s and broadening both its reach across the county and its mandate to include sexual assault services. By its own count, last year Project Sanctuary held over 2,000 individual counseling sessions, provided over 2,700 bed nights for domestic abuse survivors and their children, and sheltered over 60 survivors and 50 children in safe houses, and assisted over 250 victims seeking restraining orders.
And though there have certainly been lean years among the not-so-lean, Executive Director Dina Polkinghorne, who has headed up Project Sanctuary since 2008, told me last week that unanticipated, draconian cuts from the state─$77,000 less for domestic violence and $92,000 less for sexual assault, versus last year─are forcing them into some hard choices. Adding insult to injury, a statewide budget request for domestic violence and sexual assault prevention for $50 million, was subsequently cut to $5 million, then held to that reduced total amount for both programs. “I already had to lay off one staffer,” she said, and all 19 of us have taken a 5 percent salary cut starting October 1, starting with me.” (The Board of Supervisors could learn a thing or two from her about leading by example.) Polkinghorne added that Project Sanctuary’s two main programs─domestic violence and sexual assault─though shared experiences with many clients, are separately funded and fiscally misaligned. “With #MeToo and other current trends we’ve had good results for the sexual assault side. But we’re already spread thin like butter spread on toast on the domestic violence side.”
“First of all I had to get over the shock of being cut like that,” said Polkinghorne from her office at the back of the Project Sanctuary office on South Dora. “When we get cut it’s usually because there’s been a cut in Washington D.C., but these cuts were all from the state. I don’t understand it, we’re supposed to be doing very well.” Paradoxically, Reuters reported back in June, at the end of the state’s fiscal year, that “California has ended its fiscal year with cash left over in its general fund for the first time since 2007.” In that article State Controller John Chiang went on and on about how financially stable the state is, to the point of “not needing to borrow from either other state funds or from Wall Street.”
So what happened?
“You tell me,” Polkinghorne said. “You’d have to call up Governor Newsom and ask him.”
She suggested that I seek answers from the Sacramento office of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, which calls itself a “statewide coalition” on its website but functions, according to Polkinghorne, basically as a lobbying group for organizations in California that support domestic violence programs. The first time I called their office nobody answered the phone – this at 9:16 am on a workday. That can’t be right, I thought, and dialed them up again, this time reaching a cheery office worker who told me that communications manager Jessica Merrill was “telecommuting from home” but taking calls. Fair enough. I called and left a message, explaining what I needed. When five hours had elapsed without a peep I called the office back and said I really needed to speak with her, I did not want to leave another voice message, sure to go unanswered, or send an email. She assured me she would personally ask Merrill to call me. As I write this into the night I have yet to hear a single word from either of them. I hope she’s a better lobbyist for domestic violence victims than a communicator for the reading public.
Back in Ukiah, Polkinghorne said she’s worried that the looming cuts to the domestic violence program will disproportionately hurt women living in rural parts of the county where isolation can be an issue. “If you live in Laytonville and need to come to Ukiah for services you have to take a day, or at least half a day, off from work,” she said. She added that DA Eyster’s office secured a state grant for underserved areas, which Project Sanctuary then subcontracts with for counseling. Polkinghorne said they elected to use the funds to serve hard-to-reach rural areas of the county. “It’s a fantastic grant,” she added, though it hadn’t as of this writing yet been renewed.
Though women still make up the overwhelming percentage of domestic violence victims (“in the high-eightieth percentile”), Polkinghorne said that the State of California has made it clear that all victims need to feel welcome. “People identify as victims and all differences like gender go out the window,” she said, adding that many men, some molested as children, are not comfortable coming forward and don’t report. She said that if law enforcement is called in a domestic violence situation, it’s not always clear who did what to whom. The “he said/she said” dynamic plagues the resolution of both domestic violence and sexual assault cases.
“Without services these victims could die,” Polkinghorne warned.
Like Ukiah resident Patricia Klemm almost did before she managed to leave her abusive husband of 27 years in western Pennsylvania and resettle here in Ukiah. Remarried last March to Edwin Klemm, she said that one of the first things she did when she moved here was go for counseling at Project Sanctuary.
“I have trust issues,” she told me, “and at first I didn’t say two words. Once I learned that all the women had gone through the same thing I got my trust back and I just really bloomed.”
Klemm’s story (for purposes of this piece the stand-alone “Klemm” refers to Patricia, not to her husband Edwin) is uniquely hers but followed many well-worn steps along the depressing road to out-and-out domestic violence–which in her case also dovetailed with sexual assault, a common combo, according to Polkinghorne. She married her abuser when she was 21, despite the fact that one of his two former wives tried to warn her off by telling her “he’s a crazy man.” For the first 10 years Klemm said he never abused her because he was afraid of her father. But when her dad died, all bets were off, starting with her first beating on a day when she didn’t call to tell her husband she would be home late because she had to work overtime. After it happened she called her mom.
“She told me ‘Honey, you’re married to him, you have to work it out with him,’” Klemm said. “She’s from the old school.”
From that point on Klemm said that her ex’s need to control her escalated from physical abuse to controlling her checking account, her medications (including for diabetes), who she could see or talk to, and virtually every other aspect of her life. He even pimped her out to other guys. Klemm mused that when she first read about heiress Patty Hearst’s alleged brainwashing at the hands of the Symbionese Liberation Army in the early 1970s she didn’t believe such a thing was possible – until it happened to her. En route to the emergency room after one beating Klemm said her husband told her not to say anything about how she really got her injuries to anyone at the hospital. “What happens in the house stays in the house,” he said. So she didn’t say anything. What happened when she tried to leave him?
“He said he’d been divorced twice and lost his pants, and that he’d put me in the ground before he’d let that happen again,” she said.
Klemm and Edwin Klemm met through a website for people with disabilities and started their relationship as pen pals. Edwin Klemm eventually encouraged, then helped Klemm escape her home in Pennsylvania and move to Ukiah where they both now live. As he recalled his last trip to Belle Vernon he choked up and fought tears. “When I went back there I expected to find a dead girl,” he said.
Polkinghorne said that she and her little band of staffers, which suffers very little turnover, try to stay positive as they spread their limited grant dollars ever more thinly, always trying to get the biggest bang for the buck. One program that is especially promising is the transitional housing program, which allows domestic violence victims and their children to stay an average of 12 months. “You’re shell-shocked when you first come in,” she explained. “You’re out of immediate danger, but then where do you go? There’s no housing here.” She added that nationally it takes, on average, eight attempts before a victim leaves her abuser for good. “It’s hard, and it sometimes just isn’t possible financially. You have kids to feed and your abuser is saying ‘I’ve changed, come back.’” She said that when victims don’t have to worry about having a roof over their heads they have the time to find housing without worrying about their immediate needs. “This program proves that housing is the key,” she said. “We’ve had zero clients go back to their abusers who have been in the transitional housing program.”
Education about domestic abuse is another key program; last year Project Sanctuary provided prevention education to over 2,000 K-14 students in classrooms throughout the county. Polkinghorne said she wants young people to recognize the early signs of domestic violence to avoid becoming victims themselves one day. “Prior strangulation is a real red flag for domestic violence fatalities,” she said, adding that if there’s one thing she wants people to take away with them it’s that “If your abuser chokes you you’re at much greater risk of becoming a domestic violence fatality yourself.”
A major area of concern is a drop in the number of undocumented clients on both sides of the house: both domestic violence and sexual assault. Polkinghorne attributes this to fear of exposure to federal law enforcement and possible deportation, something she says her clients should never fear. “We would never report anybody to immigration,” she said, adding that, mirroring the federal/state legality divide on cannabis, the federal government has privacy guarantees while the state requires open documentation. “If you have a domestic violence victim and you observe child neglect, the feds say that’s confidential,” she explained. “The State of California says you’re mandated to report it.” Go figure.
In a sign of the times, Project Sanctuary has had to increase security at its facilities, both in Ukiah and in Fort Bragg, bullet-proofing building entries and requiring all clients to keep shelter locations confidential. But the enraged and the crazed will always walk among us. “We’ve had abusers spread cat shit on the door,” she said, with obvious disgust. “Are you kidding me?”
Polkinghorne said that Project Sanctuary has great support from the community, and that they have already raised $10,000 to help fill the funding shortfall. $50,000 is their goal. These local fundraising efforts have become an increasingly important component in the funding funnel, where a mind-boggling array of grants, some more consistent than others, are mixed together to ultimately fund Project Sanctuary’s programs.
Coming up on deadline I got an email from Polkinghorne letting me know that no last-minute funding reprieve had arrived so far but that miracles do happen. She recalled, after just four months on the job, when she was mentally preparing for a 20 percent funding cut from the administration of then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a stunning move, instead of making that cut, Schwarzenegger instead used his line-veto power to draw a blue line through the entire state domestic violence budget request, wiping it out entirely. This apparently didn’t sit well with First Lady Maria Shriver. “Maria Shriver was pissed that he cut the domestic violence fund,” she said. There was a big outcry, including from his wife. Funds were borrowed from an environmental fund for one year until more permanent funds were found.”
Let’s hope someone influential in our current governor’s orbit does the same.