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July 21, 2003



By Elizabeth Zwerling - WeNews correspondent

LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS) --With the backing of one of the nation's largest men's rights groups, a Los Angeles man has filed a sex-discrimination lawsuit against 10 local battered women's shelters for denying him a bed.

According to the complaint, Eldon Ray Blumhorst's civil rights were violated when he called each of the Los Angeles County shelters last December telling them he "needed shelter from domestic violence perpetrated against him" and none of the shelters took him in. Los Angeles County is home to the state's only shelter with a men's facility, but Blumhorst, 42, apparently did not seek its services.

None of the shelters being sued--which offer a variety of services including counseling and referrals for women and men--is equipped to house men overnight. That, the suit claims, violates a California government code.

Under the state's civil-rights code, programs receiving state funds may not discriminate on the basis of sex, said Marc Angelucci, a lawyer and Los Angeles chapter president of the New York-based National Coalition of Free Men. Angelucci was representing Blumhorst in this case until he left his law firm job last month. Lawyers currently representing the plaintiff declined to comment.

"We openly support this case," Angelucci said, referring to the National Coalition of Free Men, a non-profit support and lobbying group. "If a shelter is funded by the state, it's illegal to discriminate against men."

This is the first case of its kind in the nation, in which the plaintiff is suing the shelters rather than the government source funding them. But Angelucci said his group may soon be involved in two similar suits in other California counties.

Suit Will Challenge Other State Laws

The attorney defending 9 of the 10 shelters said the suit's discrimination claim does not take into account other California laws designed to protect the most vulnerable and groups that have been discriminated against historically, as well as health and safety codes. "Women's shelters receive funding from the state pursuant to a gender-specific funding statute," said Marci Fukuroda, a domestic violence lawyer for the Los Angeles-based California Women's Law Center.

Under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, the California legislature sets aside money to fund programs for female and juvenile domestic violence victims in need of emergency shelter. Another California law states that the anti-discrimination code cannot be invoked if the result will adversely impact programs created to benefit women, minorities or the elderly, Fukuroda said.

"Our argument is that these are lawful programs. The case has no legal merit," said Fukuroda, who hopes a Los Angeles Superior Court judge will dismiss the case at a July 24 hearing.

Even with these protections, more than 23,000 women are turned away annually from overcrowded California shelters, according to a 2001 report by California Department of Health Services.

But Angelucci's group argues that it is battered men who are underserved. The 25-year-old National Coalition of Free Men--which was instrumental in getting baby-changing stations installed in men's airport restrooms, among other initiatives--contends that domestic violence against men is vastly underreported.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, women account for 85 percent of victims in cases of domestic violence. And violence by an intimate partner accounts for roughly 22 percent of reported violence against women, compared to 3 percent of reported violence against men, according to the Justice Department's 2002 statistics.

But Angelucci's group claims that men actually account for nearly 40 percent of victims. "Men are raised to not go to authorities when someone, especially a female, assaults them," Angelucci said. "Men think 'I can take it.'"

Study Finds Aggression in Women

Martin Fiebert, a psychology professor at California State University, Long Beach, who studies violence against men, said its rate may be higher than law enforcement figures show.

In his 2001 report, "References Examining Assaults by Women on their Spouses or Male Partners," he reviewed more than 100 international studies on intimate-partner violence and found that women are "as physically aggressive or more aggressive than men in their relationships with their spouses or male partners." His report also found that women were "more likely than men to use one or more acts of physical aggression and to use such acts more frequently (though) women were more likely to be injured."

Linda Berger, director of the Statewide California Coalition for Battered Women, argued that most domestic violence by women is defensive. They are usually fighting back, she said, adding that the size and strength difference between men and women should be noted in discussion about aggression. "Women can be violent, we understand," she said. "But it's a different level of violence."

In another recent report, Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at State University of New York at Stony Brook, finds the suggestion of "gender symmetry" in domestic violence dangerous. In his 2001 report, "Male Victims of Domestic Violence: A Substantive and Methodological Research Review," he wrote, "These empirical studies raise troubling questions about what we know to be true of domestic violence--that it is something that men overwhelmingly 'do' to women and not the other way around; that domestic violence is among the leading causes of serious injury to women every year; and that worldwide, men's violence against women is one of world's most widespread public health issues."

Nonetheless, Fiebert said, domestic violence against men is not treated seriously by law enforcement and it needs to be exposed. "Men get disbelief, ridicule. Women get support," he said.

The argument that law-enforcement statistics don't tell the whole story, however, also holds true for battered women, only 26 percent of whom ever report the crime to police, according to the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women.

Shelters Acknowledge Need for Male Facilities

The Los Angeles shelter directors, who said their limited resources have already been stretched by this lawsuit, don't deny a need for men's shelter services.

"The fact that we limit ourselves to women and children is not to say that it is not a problem with men," said Ben Schirmer, executive director of Rainbow Services in San Pedro, one of the shelters being sued. "It's that we have limited resources and it's all we can do to try and keep up with the demand for services for women and children.

"It's not clinically appropriate to house men and women in the same facility," said Schirmer, whose shelter, like the others, house women and their children in open dormitory-style rooms.

Kathie Mathis, executive director of the Domestic Violence Center of Santa Clarita, said one of the reasons she finds this suit troubling is that the shelters do help men with counseling and referrals to shelters that can house them, if needed.

"We're all in a network," she said. "No one is turned away; they're just referred."

Mathis, who took Blumhorst's December call, said he was not interested in any such referrals.

Berger of the Southern California Coalition said her organization during the past several years has offered to help men's groups set up shelters for battered men. "We say we would be happy to provide assistance in developing programs. They don't want to hear our message . . . There's not a willingness to build, just tear down."

"It's hard to run a nonprofit in today's economy," Schirmer said. "It's easier to sue than to start a new shelter. But lawsuits like this that take us away from our mission do not help anybody."

Elizabeth Zwerling is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of La Verne in Southern California.

For more information:

National Coalition of Free Men: - http://www.ncfm.org

California Women's Law Center: - http://www.cwlc.org

Southern California Coalition for Battered Women: - http://www.sccbw.org



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