Sheltering abuse victims
By KAREN CROWLEY METZINGER, MA ’97
When MARTA PELAEZ ’83 commuted to campus on 60 miles of icy roads from the small town of Princeton, Illinois, to finish her psychology degree, she was determined that nothing would stop her from reaching her goal. With two sons and a daughter under the age of six and a husband who had recently completed his medical internship in Chicago, Pelaez was quite the nontraditional student.
Reflecting on her challenging situation, she is grateful for the incredible support she received from Bradley faculty, especially the psychology department and the late Dr. Richard Stalling, professor emeritus of psychology. She laughed, remembering how much her 4-year-old son loved to accompany her to the psychology rat lab in Comstock Hall.
“My professors understood my family situation, spoke with me after hours on the phone, and allowed me to record all lectures. It was beautiful,” she said. “I would play my tapes on my long drives to campus and back to Princeton. That’s how I studied.”
Now, as the president/CEO of Family Violence Prevention Services Inc. (FVPS) in San Antonio since 1999, Pelaez, her staff of 84, and her volunteer force of almost 70 support a vulnerable population: battered women and children.
“The need is large,” Pelaez said. “The family is the genesis of both good and bad in the community. It is at the center of the family where things go right or wrong that affect all of us. If you have a healthy environment and intimate support system, you can cope when bad things happen.”
Pelaez had spent the day before our interview in Austin, working with legislators for increased funding throughout Texas for abused women and children. She believes the nation’s economic crisis will continue to have a great impact on her city. She leads the only social service agency with an office in the San Antonio courthouse.
When Pelaez arrived at the shelter for our meeting, she was deeply involved in a phone conversation with a children’s court judge, passionately advocating for a mother and her children who had experienced 13 years of abuse. She understands the power of her voice for domestic violence victims.
A family’s social conscience
After earning her master’s degree in 1993 from the University of Texas, El Paso, Pelaez used her background in clinical and experimental psychology to give back. She began by working with abused children and abusive parents in El Paso. Her connection with FVPS began when her family moved to San Antonio in 1999. Natives of Bogota, Colombia, she and her husband, Raul, a radiologist, decided they wanted to help battered women at his imaging center. She called FVPS and told the executive director about her interest in working at the shelter and her husband’s interest in offering mammograms. Today, Raul continues to be on call, and the clinic is run by a nonprofit medical enterprise. Their children, Manuel, Raul, and Juanita, attorneys in Texas, also use their voices to empower others.
For the past 11 years, the couple has witnessed firsthand the power of unhealthy family environments. With a mission to provide tools toward self-sufficiency, FVPS has served about 225,000 people since 1977.
“I have had a certain sensitivity toward vulnerable populations since I was in high school. I would invite two small children I grew to know from the streets of Bogota to eat snacks with me at our dining room table,” Pelaez said. “I remember asking my parents, ‘What is so different between these children and myself?’ I never saw any difference between us that would explain or justify the difference in social treatment. I was sensitive to the unique prejudices created between humans based on how we dress, where we live, and the cars we drive.”
Power of economic factors
One of the largest Texas shelters in a city of more than 1 million people, FVPS boasts 19 residential and nonresidential programs to help victims of domestic violence. While FVPS served an average of 68 people daily in 2008, the numbers tripled in 2010 as the economic situation worsened. “Where the propensity of abusive dynamics already existed, it’s a double whammy when a man loses his job and becomes violent in the home. He takes it out upon those he claims to love,” Pelaez said. “I say ‘he’ because the majority of the violence is perpetrated against women by men.”
As chairwoman of the state board of the Texas Coalition, Pelaez hears reports about the emotional abandonment of children that occurs in abusive homes. When the emotional climate in the home is so dysfunctional, the natural response is for children to look elsewhere for guidance, structure, and values; they find it in gangs and the drug culture where guidelines are clear and loyalty based. Pelaez finds comfort in knowing that the shelter is staffed 24 hours a day, year-round to serve mothers and children up to age 17.
“I look at our staff as a quilt, each piece integrally important, essential to the fabric of our shelter,” said Pelaez. “We have the same degree of compassion and passion, and I have a team that is the envy of any corporation. We exercise our social responsibility and have strong voices when it comes to helping others.”
Since 84 percent of the women and children are brought to the shelter by law enforcement and not under their own volition, FVPS offers numerous services to prevent them from leaving prematurely. A pre-K through grade 12 school and adult education are available on the campus, plus on-site medical and dental clinics, legal assistance, counseling, and three tiers of transitional housing.
“We don’t turn anyone away,” Pelaez said. “We can shelter 222 people, but I know where to send the 223rd person. We offer a comprehensive new life with everything families might need to make them less likely to return,” she added. “Helping victims see themselves as survivors and teaching children that any violence hurts all of us are tremendous tasks.”
Nationally, when women enter shelters, 28 percent return an average of seven times to the shelter before cutting ties with the abuser. At FVPS, the recidivism rate is eight to 10 percent, and that’s how Pelaez defines success.
“We engage the women from the beginning and convince each one that if she goes through the entire program, sometimes a commitment of two years, she can do it on her own. The feeling of homelessness — it’s something quite traumatic. Their home is gone when they’re in the shelter, so it’s quite easy to understand why they go back. We provide resources that demonstrate to them that they don’t have to be abused; they can manage on their own — for themselves and for their children.”