Credit: Photo Illustration by Caitlin Whelan

First in a three-part series. Read parts two and three.

For many people in Santa Ana, the most dangerous place to be isn’t a deserted park after sundown or a street corner in a tough neighborhood.

It’s home.

Santa Ana’s rate of domestic violence calls per person is higher than that of any other major city in California, according to data from the California Office of the Attorney General and state demographers. Its rate is nearly twice that of Los Angeles and close to three times that of neighboring Anaheim.

In 2013, the Santa Ana Police Department received 3,038 domestic violence calls, about eight a day.

Domestic violence call rates

Experts say it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why domestic violence appears to be so prevalent in Santa Ana. However, they say income level and cultural background play significant roles.

Nearly half of Santa Ana’s population is foreign-born, census data show, and immigrants are accustomed to more lenient laws when it comes to domestic violence, the experts say.

In fact, U.S. laws changed only recently.

“It wasn’t against the law to beat your wife in this country until 1985. You could get arrested for assault, but there was no law against spousal violence,” said Vivian Clecak, executive director at Human Options, one of Orange County’s domestic violence shelters.

“One of the things we found is that people from more traditional cultures – we have had to remind them it’s against the law.”

In Mexico, federal law made domestic violence illegal in 2007, though local laws vary and are poorly enforced, with widespread tolerance of abuse, according to a number of reports by human rights organizations.

Compounding the cultural differences are Santa Ana’s crowded living conditions. The city is among the most densely populated in the nation, according to It’s common for many residents to share apartments, which means that any domestic incident is likely to be overheard and reported by others.

“People hear other people’s business,” said Soledad Gomez, a community health worker at Latino Health Access, which runs support groups for victims of family violence.

Gomez, like many others who work in the field, said that while poverty-related stresses and alcohol do not cause or excuse domestic violence, they are certainly aggravating influences.

“We have a lot of liquor stores here,” Gomez said ruefully.

Santa Ana’s 45 liquor stores listed on dwarf Irvine’s 13. But there are 84 liquor stores in Anaheim, which has far fewer calls to police for domestic violence despite a slightly larger population and somewhat comparable rates of poverty and immigration.

A Legacy of Family Violence

Growing up in Santa Ana, Marissa Presley regularly witnessed her mother’s beatings at the hands of her father and recalls that friends, neighbors and family members did nothing to stop them.

Not all of her father’s abuses were physical, she remembers. He had other ways of controlling his family; one was by not allowing his wife to work, drive or handle the family’s money. And he could intimidate with a menacing glance.

“He had a look that could break a little girl,” Presley said.

Throughout her early life, Presley went through many of the traumas associated with domestic violence, including sexual molestation and teen pregnancy. As an adult, she struggled to make sense of her upbringing and believes therapy was instrumental in helping her come to peace with her past.

She now works at Laura’s House, a shelter for victims, where she educates people about the myths of domestic violence. Sometimes her work takes her back to the same immigrant neighborhoods where she, herself an immigrant, grew up.

But despite her best efforts to spread awareness and spark discussion in Santa Ana, she says, “Talking about domestic violence is still taboo to this day.”

YouTube video

‘Woefully Understaffed’

Another possible reason why the problem is worse in Santa Ana than elsewhere, experts say, could be the police department’s approach to the issue.

Santa Ana devotes significantly less manpower to combating the crime than Anaheim and Long Beach, despite a significantly higher number of domestic violence calls to police.

In Santa Ana, one detective and a non-sworn investigator are assigned to domestic violence cases, with sexual assault detectives sometimes assisting. A full-time victim advocate connects families to shelters, counseling and services, and shepherds them through the legal process.

In comparison, Long Beach has assigned eight detectives to domestic violence, and Anaheim has assigned seven, with one vacant position currently. Anaheim detectives work alongside prosecutors, social service providers and advocates in the county’s only Family Justice Center.

Casey Gwinn, president of the National Family Justice Center Alliance, called Santa Ana’s domestic violence unit “woefully understaffed.”

He said the police agencies commonly say they don’t have enough resources to bolster a domestic violence unit when what they really need to do is reallocate existing resources.

As a prosecutor in San Diego, Gwinn determined that 40 percent of what police broadly call “crimes against persons” – that is, cases involving bodily harm and threats – involved domestic violence. He argued that 40 percent of “crimes against persons” resources should be reassigned to domestic violence – an idea that seemed unorthodox at the time. Eventually, the unit came to have 30 detectives.

Santa Ana police officials say the department is adequately addressing the issue.

“We have proven we are taking the cases seriously, both in the enforcement and also follow-up with victim assistance,” said Det.-Sgt. Ron Grace, the supervisor of Santa Ana’s Family Crimes Unit.

“I love the Santa Ana Police Department, and we work closely with them” said Presley, praising its efforts in community outreach. Others in the field see recent improvements but say officers who arrive at the scene of a domestic violence call are still too often indifferent.

An officer’s response to a call is crucial because it is at this juncture when many victims first become acquainted with relief options such as shelters or counseling. And since it takes an average of seven attempts before a victim leaves an abuser, it’s important for officers on the scene not to become dismissive if they get called to the same home repeatedly, experts say.

Police also need to take enough time to determine the primary aggressor. Advocates for victims say that sometimes police see scratch marks but no bruising (which doesn’t show immediately) and wrongly arrest the victim. An undocumented victim could face deportation after being wrongly arrested.

From Father to Son

What makes domestic violence such an insidious crime is that it’s a behavior learned at an early age.

“Two-thirds of boys in violent homes grow up to become abusers themselves. Even though boys say, ‘I would never want to do this,’ there’s an early imprinting of family behavior,” Clecak of Human Options said.

Domestic violence is linked to a host of social problems: homelessness, along with childhood sexual abuse, teen pregnancy and teen dating violence. Santa Ana’s rate of teen pregnancy is the highest among cities in the county, according to the county’s Health Care Agency. And one in four teens is subject to dating violence in Orange County, according to Laura’s House.

“You can’t imagine how many problems we see with the kids,” said Francisca Leal of Latino Health Access (LHA), where she is the director of emotional wellness efforts and coordinator of domestic violence programs.

Leal and other community advocates report seeing frequent signs of distress in children and teens, whether it’s self-harm through cutting or disruptive behavior in school. One counselor in Santa Ana remembers a 4-year-old in an art class who penned an outline of a man on black paper and drew an angry face on it.

She told counselors that the figure was her father and, “He’s mad at mom,” said Claudia Flores, supervisor of the Minnie Street Family Resource Center, which offers domestic violence services with support from Human Options.

And the scourge of domestic violence affects far more than just the emotional health of its victims.

A new study shows that witnessing family violence is one of 10 childhood traumas, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, associated with drug use and unhealthy behaviors later in life. But it also turns out that witnessing abuse, particularly among other adverse childhood experiences, correlates to worse health outcomes in heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes.

Why It’s Hard to ‘Just Leave’

Family and friends of domestic violence victims often advise them to leave, but it’s not so easy.

An abuser often ratchets up the violence when a victim attempts to flee – and sometimes friends and relatives are reluctant to take in a family on the run for fear of the abuser coming to their home. Victims typically need an exit strategy and some resources, which is where LHA and other community groups have become lifelines.

LHA’s community health workers provide moral support through home visits, even teaching women to drive or to balance a checkbook to help them to be self-sufficient.

Just getting families to acknowledge the need for help is challenging. Domestic violence is not easily discussed, both because victims are embarrassed and because they don’t feel safe seeking help within earshot of their abuser.

LHA has developed creative ways to contact possible victims without endangering them, including setting up tables near apartment buildings to give away laundry detergent and tortillas.

In the bottoms of the packages they place a note explaining that domestic abuse is wrong and offer assistance. Sometimes they give away smoothies as a pretext to talk about the “ingredients” of a healthy relationship.

Presley from Laura’s House has visited juvenile jail and schools and met with families inside Santa Ana’s crowded apartment buildings to discuss domestic violence. People are often quiet during the presentations, but the next day Presley usually finds a number of emails from people in distress who were at the previous night’s gathering.

Sometimes victims avoid shelters, assuming they are dangerous places with families sleeping on the floor, though the vast majority of shelters are warm environments with families commonly assigned to their own rooms. Another barrier is that a shelter stay generally requires a mother putting her children in new schools and, in some cases, not going to work.

Then there’s the conundrum of what happens after the shelter.

Some shelters offer longer-term living arrangements with low-cost housing,
but even these costs might be too much for poor victims who don’t have a
means of financial support, English skills or a permit to work legally. So they frequently return to their abusers.

The Limits of Intervention

As the supervisor at the Minnie Street Family Resource Center, Claudia Flores knows first-hand about the challenges of trying to keep victims from returning to abuse.

She recalls an incident last fall when a mother of three and regular classroom volunteer stopped into the center with a secret. She confided to Flores that her husband drank and became abusive toward her on weekends. She described the abuse as verbal as well as some pushing and slapping.

“I told her, ‘This is called domestic violence,’ and her eyes got wide open,” Flores recalled.

The next time she came into the center, “We developed a safety plan,” Flores said. They determined where she could take refuge if she needed a secure location and reviewed options for staying at a shelter, which she declined.

The woman, however, explained that she did not want to call police and put her husband in danger of deportation. She also reported starting a new job, despite being undocumented. She was pleased to be earning money, though her husband opposed her working.

“A few weeks later I saw her, and she said everything was good,” Flores recalled. The woman said her husband realized she was thinking of leaving, and he had stopped the abuse as a result.

But Flores, familiar with the cycle of abuse, asked her to keep a small shred of paper with the phone number of the shelter in her wallet just in case she needed it. Abuse began again, but this time her husband went to the woman’s workplace and threatened her boss, which resulted in her losing her job.

Now he was once again the sole provider.

Meanwhile, her kids were upset with their mother for taking the abuse, even as they pressured her not to break up the family. Flores said the woman has stopped coming by the center in recent months and she hasn’t seen her volunteering at school anymore.

Flores believes she saw her walking on a street near the center in November. But she was far away and out of reach.

Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the University of California, Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at

UC Irvine Literary Journalism student Jennifer Jopson contributed to this article.

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