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March 20, 2009

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.

You've heard me say before that my heroes are people who do the best of things in the worst of times. They are proving it all over again during this great collapse of the economy.

My friend Peter Dreier, who teaches politics at Occidental College in California, says "This Economy is a Real Killer." He cites research estimating that for every percent the rate of unemployment climbs, an additional 47,000 people die - half from heart attacks. More than 800 are murdered. And nearly twelve hundred commit suicide.

We're experiencing now what the CHRONICLE OF PHILANTHROPY calls an explosion of demand at shelters for abused women, treatment centers for addiction, health care clinics and counseling centers for troubled young people. In those places of refuge the financial disaster takes on a human face.

With me now is one of my heroes. Marta B. Peláez spends every working day with women and children in need. She is President and CEO of Family Violence Prevention Services in San Antonio, Texas, a city of more than one million people. A clinical psychologist, among her other duties, Marta Peláez oversees a shelter for battered women and children, where the demand for admission has tripled in recent months.

BILL MOYERS: Marta Peláez, welcome to the JOURNAL.

MARTA PELÁEZ: Thank you very much, Bill, for the invitation.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me who these women are who come to see you.

MARTA PELÁEZ: These are women who in the middle of the night, usually a weekend, during a weekend, have to run for their lives and those of their children. They arrive at the shelter with one shoe on, one shoe off, a little baby in their arms, maybe with just diapers on. And the other children crying, scared, clinging onto this woman. To begin life from that point on. That's who they are.

BILL MOYERS: What do they need from you, when they arrive?

MARTA PELÁEZ: They do not know what they need. They are in shock, and they are traumatized. After 32 years of serving that population, we know that they need comprehensive, long term services. Because the trauma is big. The trauma is long standing. And it needs services to address everything that has happened to them. Legal services, medical services, educational services, therapeutic services, transitional housing, job skills, intervention for the children, all kinds of things.

BILL MOYERS: When did you begin to see a spike in the number of women coming to see you?

MARTA PELÁEZ: About April, May of last year, we began to see numbers increasing in ways that we could not explain, based on patterns of years past. And that peak became a plateau and it stayed with us.

Last year, at this same time, I had 68, 70 on my daily census, women and children. Today, I just called this morning, we had 184 women. 114 of them, of those people, are children.

BILL MOYERS: Do most of these women come with children?

MARTA PELÁEZ: Oh, yes. No mother leaves their children. Yes. They come with their children. Two thirds of the population that we have, at any time, are children. Last year, we served 13,827 people with domestic abuse issues. Two thirds are children.

BILL MOYERS: Many economists think that even if Obama's stimulus plan works, unemployment is going to rise by the end of this year. Maybe as-- higher than ten or eleven percent. What does that portend for you and your work?

MARTA PELÁEZ: That's scary. Because while unemployment is producing more domestic violence, is impacting the abuser, it is also impacting the woman that might want to go out, look for a job. The teenage children who might want to have that summer job to help mom. To help in the house. So, it's going to impact, again, domestic violence from all ends.

BILL MOYERS: How do we know that abuse is connected to unemployment and recession?

MARTA PELÁEZ: I hear the women talk. That's the proof that I offer.

BILL MOYERS: What do they say?

MARTA PELÁEZ: They're saying that he lost the job, he couldn't explode at the workplace, when he received that pink slip. So, he comes home and he beats her up. He abuses the children. It's not that it is the first time. But this is a person that is prone to violence, is prone to aggression. And they might not have the explosion in the street. They will have the explosion in the home. So, we have seen increased numbers of those situations.

Let me just give you an example. We have a woman at the shelter right now, who I will call Rose. She had been abused for a long time. Under these extra stressors that the family was living with, economic challenges, she lost her job, he lost his job. The children are crying. So, there is a lot of impatience going on. He ended up putting a kitchen knife in her mouth, slide it off, and slit her cheek, all the way from the mouth to the ear. She will have a scar for life, in her face. The psychological scars that she will carry will be for a long time. But the scars that are deepest and most difficult to deal with are those in the children, who watched, who were present. Not just that event, awful event, but the abuse and the lack of respect, and the battering that went on for years.

BILL MOYERS: Marta, I was just reading a study done by Simmons College in Boston. A long term study that shows that children who experience family strife at 15 are far more likely at 30 to be unemployed, to be frustrated, to be addicted, to be dealing in antisocial behavior. So, the researchers, the sociologists are finding direct relationships between strife in a family, when kids are teenagers, and what happens to them as they play out in their own lives.

MARTA PELÁEZ: Absolutely. It is directly related to the dropout rate in schools. It's directly related to substance abuse. It's directly related to abuse in the next generation, what we call generational domestic violence. It impairs the entire society. It is related to absenteeism in the workplace. It's related to depression. It's related to health issues. So much so that it can kill you.

BILL MOYERS: So, what did you do for Rose, when she came?

MARTA PELÁEZ: Rose received medical care, primary medical care. She was all bandaged. She received an embrace from the staff. "You are okay. You will grow stronger." We provide hope, we provide possibilities and opportunities. She received legal services. Representation. Again, the children need to be properly intervened, legally.

BILL MOYERS: How old were the children?

MARTA PELÁEZ: The children -- she has a three year old, she was six months pregnant, an eleven year old, and a 13 or 14 year old.

This is a severe case. Rose will be with us for a long time. How long? Beyond two years, I think.

BILL MOYERS: Two years?

MARTA PELÁEZ: Not of the emergency program. But we provide transitional housing. Four different tiers of transitional housing with emphasis less and less on therapeutic approaches.

But more on the practical aspects of living. If you've been told throughout your life that you're an idiot, that you can't do anything, you ultimately end up believing it. Which is psychological abuse. So, these women's self esteem and dignity needs to be repaired. To be made whole again. So that they can do for themselves and for their children. And they turn out like Mack trucks on the other side.

BILL MOYERS: But what would happen. You must have seen some who leave and go back into that ugly situation.

MARTA PELÁEZ: Yes. We are, as human beings are beings of custom. As awful and as ugly as that may be. So, it is difficult for them. For many of them, the excuses - "He's the father of the children." "I feel guilty taking them away." "The abuse was onto me, not onto the children." So, they cling onto a lot of misconceptions.

For me, one of the measures of success or lack of a program is the rate of recidivism. A national statistic is, a woman will go back to the abuser seven times.

That is how many times she needs to be reinforced in her decision to leave. Until she understands that yes, she can do it. That no, she doesn't need to be hit. That no, love is not the equivalent to fear. That children are better off not having such a person in their life.

BILL MOYERS: What's the most important thing you would like my audience to know about these women?

MARTA PELÁEZ: Number one, that they are homeless. It is a homeless population. That lives can be repaired and made whole, if the resources are there, and especially for the youth. They're very confused these days, because they do not understand the difference between love and abuse. There is the easiest way that I can put it is, if fear is an emotion that is part of the relationship in which you are, run. You are being abused.

Young women are very confused between jealousy, control, they need to be controlled by the abuser, and love. "I was talking to another boy," they would say." And he came and, you know, he hit me, because I was talking to another boy. But it's because he loves me," she says. That's a very, very confused notion of what love is. Love is respectful. Love does not incorporate threats in the communication. Love does not control you. I don't have to know how many calls you have, missed calls you have in your cell, to love you. No, that is control. That is abuse, and that's how it begins. So, they need to understand what the signs are. So, that's what I would like to tell them. No fear.

BILL MOYERS: What about the men? They need help, too, don't they? Where do they get it?

MARTA PELÁEZ: We have, and there are these programs all over the nation, batterers intervention programs. And one of the reasons that I have to have such a program is because it is the other side of what we do for the women, and for the community. If the men are not intervened, if the men do not understand that they have choices before they get to the punches and the kicks and the psychological abuse and control. If they don't understand that, then that man might not continue to abuse the women and the children that are at the shelter. But they will engage in other relationships.

So, it stands to reason that if we want to do something to impact and intervene domestic violence. We have to do something for the men, too. And for the most part, they learn. They understand that they have choices. They can separate. They can get a divorce. They can go for a walk around the block. They can call someone. There are things that you can do. They can respectfully disagree with one another. We all have these disagreements.

BILL MOYERS: San Antonio has a big military community.


BILL MOYERS: And with President Obama having announced that he's going to be bringing many of the troops from Iraq back. You're anticipating some real challenges with violence and abuse.

MARTA PELÁEZ: Absolutely. These young men that will be returning from the war will have a very difficult time readjusting. So, the military is getting ready for what might happen, in terms of domestic violence. And there have been already some very salient cases of domestic violence.

They have changed. They have been exposed to experiences that have changed them somehow. The family has changed, also, in his absence. So, he comes back and they're speaking a different language. He's been exposed to these very traumatic events. And of which the family has not been part of. And there is a disconnect. That's when bad things can happen. So, the intervention needs to take that into consideration. And to have preventive approaches and preventive programs.

They need to be comprehensive and long term. No Band-Aid approach. That would be a waste of resources. That would be a waste of the impetus that the victim has at one moment of clarity to seek for help. And if that person doesn't go to the right program, that impetus might be wasted.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that the recession, the hard times economically, is the only reason that you're seeing a spike in the number of women who need help?

MARTA PELÁEZ: No, Bill. And I think that that's why the spike in the numbers began before we heard of the economic crisis. Because we thought that the rumblings of immigration reform produced for the abusers one more tool to abuse. You see, when these men control the women, they are not assisting and providing what the women need to legalize their immigration status in the nation. So, that's to their advantage. Because it's that one more tool. "You report me for having beat you up last week, and I will have you deported. I will keep the children. I'll take the children away from you." So, that is something that the lawmakers need to be sensitive to, when they are putting their words into law, and passing these laws. And having these conversations.

BILL MOYERS: And you say that as the number of women coming to you has tripled; your donations have fallen off?

MARTA PELÁEZ: Have gone south. Yes.

BILL MOYERS: So, does this turn--


BILL MOYERS: --you into a beggar?

MARTA PELÁEZ: I have been for a long time, a merciless beggar, yes. That's what I call myself these days.

We have a two prong situation here. While I have more people, because of the economic crisis. I have more people that are prone to violence, that are being aggressive unto their loved ones. I also have less resources to help them.

BILL MOYERS: And these problems don't go away, do they? When a recession ends?

MARTA PELÁEZ: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. It is a shame, but domestic violence has been with humanity for a long time. I have to remain very hopeful, in order to do what we do.

BILL MOYERS: Do you still play the guitar?

MARTA PELÁEZ: Oh, I do. Absolutely. That keeps me healthy. Yes. I sing to myself sometimes, without an audience.

BILL MOYERS: That may be the most appreciative audience of all, if I were to sing to myself.

MARTA PELÁEZ: Yes, yes. Sometimes yes.

BILL MOYERS: Marta Peláez, thank you for being on the Journal. And thank you for what you do.

MARTA PELÁEZ: I thank you.

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