California Health Report

L.A. Program Dedicated to Counseling Victims of Violence Offers Solace, Understanding to Survivors

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A routine outing with her sons changed Rhonda Foster’s life forever in 1997. She was just leaving Darby Park in Inglewood when gang members sprayed her car with bullets, in an attempt to shoot a man standing nearby. The gunfire killed Foster’s 7-year-old, Evan, and wounded her 10-month-old, Alec.

After the fatal shooting, which the Los Angeles press covered extensively, the Fosters received an outpouring of community support. Evan’s elementary school renamed its library in his honor, and a local auto dealership gave the family a new minivan. While thankful for the gestures of kindness, Rhonda Foster, her husband, Ruett, and baby Alec still needed to work through their grief. They found help at Loved Ones Victims Services in Culver City.

“It was just a very devastating time,” Ruett Foster said. “I felt personally so broken that when we found out that this place was available to provide services … I just jumped in and really worked on the journey.”

Established in 1985, Loved Ones provides counseling, educational resources and other forms of support to violence victims. The Fosters received therapy from Loved Ones for nearly a year and have stayed in touch with the staff during the two decades since Evan’s murder.

“I have a psychology degree, so I knew it was important to have therapy for what we were dealing with,” Rhonda Foster said. “All the therapists there were excellent. Dealing with murder is a very unique circumstance and not just anyone can help an individual with that type of tragedy, so that’s how unique Loved Ones is. That’s their focus.”

By prioritizing the mental health of survivors and giving them the chance to connect with others in similar circumstances, victim outreach organizations such as Loved Ones break the cycle of violence. The services they provide lead some victims to become crime prevention advocates, as Ruett and Rhonda Foster have. The couple has shared their story and discussed the causes of violence with audiences across the state and nation. Victim outreach groups also give survivors the tools to leave abusive relationships and the emotional stability to avoid becoming offenders themselves.

Victims Had Nowhere to Go

In California, Loved Ones Victims Services is one of the oldest groups dedicated to helping violence survivors. A social worker and a victims advocate began the organization because survivors of violence had few places to turn after enduring trauma.

“There had been a high spike in homicides, and the organization was founded because those families had nowhere to go,” said Loved Ones’ executive director Ferroll Robins, on staff since 1993. “Now you’re starting to see trauma centers, which is a good thing because no one can serve all of the victims in the city.”

Today, Loved Ones provides counseling for about 20 people monthly, a number that spikes during the crime-heavy summer months. The organization primarily serves homicide and assault victims but also treats people affected by suicide and bullying (it refers sexual assault and domestic violence survivors to other agencies.) Most Loved Ones clients receive counseling for up to a year and may also participate in group therapy. Social outings and alternative therapeutic practices, such as painting, quilting and releasing butterflies, are offered as well.

“Everyone heals differently,” Robins explained. Some victims might enjoy making a memory quilt, while others prefer traditional counseling. Others feel validated during group therapy, while some are triggered by the stories told.

The survivors treated at Loved Ones—usually referred by friends and family members, law enforcement agencies or advocacy groups—come from across Southern California. Some travel from as far away as the Antelope Valley, about 80 miles away from downtown Los Angeles, but many live in South L.A. and the surrounding areas, such as Inglewood. There, in a sprawling 14-acre park with a wading pool, picnic areas, athletic fields and courts, Evan Foster lost his life.

Bordered by tract homes, the well-maintained park does not call to mind gang violence. While Inglewood certainly has its troubled sections, Darby Park is a stark contrast from those areas and the many parts of South L.A. where streets are lined with liquor stores, fast-food restaurants and other businesses with bars on the windows and doors. The 13 Los Angeles neighborhoods with the most crime are all in South L.A., according to a Los Angeles Times ranking of 272 areas of the city.

A Growing Number of Crime Survivors

But violent crime isn’t unique to South L.A., and the number of victims appears to be rising throughout California. A 2018 analysis by the Marshall Project and the Los Angeles Times found  that violent crime rose statewide by 12 percent from 2014 to 2017. Survivors of such offenses qualify to receive state funding to compensate them for expenses related to counseling, funeral services, medical treatment and time off from work. During the 2014-15 fiscal year, the California Victim Compensation Board received 49,997 applications for financial support from victims of crimes such as homicide, assault and rape. The following year, that number increased by about 2,000. And the board received 54,744 applications last fiscal year.

The Victim Compensation Board allocates funds to Loved Ones Victims Services to help survivors, but Robins says that, on occasion, the board will not cover treatment. If the survivor lacks insurance, Loved Ones offers a sliding scale for the cost of treatment but will still see clients who can’t afford to pay. It will also see victims well after they first sought counseling.

“We’re there for the long haul,” she said. “People may go away for two years, and we treat them like it’s the first year they came in. We have the patience to do that. We understand where they are, that it takes time, and it takes a lot of patience. We don’t rush them through the healing process.”

Meeting the needs of victims also matters to Patricia Wenskunas, founder and CEO of Crime Survivors Inc. in Orange County. The organization helps victims of rape, elder abuse, homicide, human trafficking and other crimes. It provides a number of services for survivors, including support groups, holiday programs, career and education help and self-defense classes.

Now in its 16th year, the organization serves roughly 2,500 people annually, according to Wenskunas. When people contact Crime Survivors, they’re asked to identify the crime committed against them, whether they can safely access services or need a court liaison for legal proceedings. They’re also asked if they want basic necessities such as clothes and toiletries, among other questions.  

“There are no two victims who are alike,” said Wenskunas, a survivor of a violent crime herself. “What can we provide for one victim may be completely different from what we do for another.”

As she advocates for victims, Wenskunas said that California needs to improve its outreach to survivors.

“California is not a victim rehabilitation state,” she said. “Legislators are not making laws stronger for victims. A lot of victims are not coming forward for fear of deportation or lack of justice. They think, ‘He’s just going to get off anyway.’”

Victims Still Face Barriers

But the state has made some gains in serving crime victims, according to Robert Rooks, vice president of Californians for Safety and Justice. The organization includes the national Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice network and helps victims influence criminal justice policy. Rooks pointed out that California has expanded its trauma recovery centers for violent crime survivors and that both the Victim of Crime Act and Proposition 47 have routed millions of additional funds to victims as well.

“Crime victims want investments in their communities to stop the cycle of crime,” he said. A major barrier survivors face, Rooks added, is that accessing services too often requires them to interact with law enforcement.

“Not everybody wants to report what happened to them to the police, not everybody wants to leave an abusive relationship, not everybody wants their abuser to be in jail,” explained Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, creator of the Family Justice Center serving the region.  

While her department oversees the center, O’Malley said there is no police presence there and that when people call the number, they are not contacting the DA’s office. The Family Justice Center serves approximately 18,000 people yearly, most of them women and children. Accordingly, the staff has made it very family friendly, with a “kids’ zone” on the premises.

At the center, domestic violence survivors can get the job training and connections they need to live independently from their abusers. They also learn how to prepare nutritious meals, create a budget and build their confidence. Clients may also receive pro bono legal work.

Parents who get the help they need to break free from abusive relationships teach their own children that they don’t have to stay in such relationships. In this way, helping domestic violence victims ends the cycle in families, O’Malley said.

Breaking the Cycle

Helping victims generally, no matter their circumstances, also has the potential to stop the perpetuation of violence, Ruett Foster said.

“From a human perspective, those who hurt others who have been hurt, which is why some victims—they become violent themselves,” said Foster, a trained social worker. “Helping crime victims makes the community that much healthier.”

Robins said that many victims are angry about the crimes they experienced, especially during the year immediately following the incident. “It’s probably the hardest time for them,” she said. “It is a very difficult time. If you talk to them [later], most of them can’t tell you what happened [that year]. Most are in survival mode.”

It doesn’t help that victims often lose relationships after experiencing a crime. Friends may distance themselves from them because they can’t relate or feel uncomfortable interacting with survivors of violence. Rhonda Foster said this happened to Ruett and her after Evan’s death.

“Absolutely, we lost friends, but we gained new ones during the healing process,” she said. At Loved Ones, they connected with people who could relate to their struggles.

Getting the emotional support they needed has inspired the Fosters to strive to end violence. Rhonda Foster works for the nonprofit Community Build Inc., part of L.A.’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development program. She sits on Women Against Gun Violence’s board as well. Ruett Foster is the lead pastor of Culver City’s Community Bible Church, which works with local police to get first-time youth offenders back on track.

“It’s been a really positive thing to take this pain and despair and turn it around and inspire people to live their best lives,” he said.