“This is one of society’s best-kept dirty secrets — that abuse happens even in affluent areas,” Ruth Darlene said.
In 2011, Darlene was researching eating disorders of young women at the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention. But in the process of meeting with health professionals and young people to develop her curriculum for Bay Area high schools on eating disorders, Darlene began to see a recurring problem in the homes of Silicon Valley: abuse. When women Darlene personally knew identified abuse in their own relationships, she thought it was time to make a change.
“I applied the same research model that I learned at Stanford to answering this question: Does domestic violence, domestic abuse, happen in middle- to upper-income areas?” Darlene said. “I interviewed more than 30 providers in the field and each one of them said yes.”
That same year, Darlene founded Women of Silicon Valley (WomenSV), a non-profit support group based in Los Altos that works to address domestic abuse in affluent Silicon Valley. The community-funded organization provides individual and group counseling and professional training for counselors, doctors and businesses, as well as other services for Bay Area women.
“It’s readily accepted and recognized that domestic violence happens in lower economic areas, but we have an idea — this myth, really — that domestic violence doesn’t happen in the more educated parts of town,” Darlene said. “The fact is we are just better at hiding it.”
WomenSV has helped over 1,300 women in their eight years of operation, and their website (www.womensv.org) states that between two and three new clients reach out each day. Darlene said that wives of many different types of men come to her group, from CEOs to lawyers to religious leaders to doctors, and that their program covers not only sexual and physical abuse, but other forms of relationship abuse like financial, technological and emotional abuse. In many cases, the women are tracked and monitored through their technology and cut off from funds in an attempt to keep them completely dependent on the abuser.
“Abusers in this population often have the money, power and influence to make it very difficult for a woman to escape safely, get a fair settlement and keep custody of their children,” Darlene said.
One woman in the support group described WomenSV as a source of support while she went through a difficult divorce.
Darlene “was so calming, so empathetic, so intelligent,” she said. “Never once was there any blame. Never any reference to something I did wrong. Because that’s what happens; you start to self-blame. You think somehow there must have been something wrong I did as a wife. That’s how they make you feel. Ruth just really got me down that road to try to get free of that and now I go to her support group every week.”
Women from around Silicon Valley find WomenSV through word of mouth, professional referrals and news publicity, Darlene said. After being broadcast on national media shows like Good Morning America, Darlene said she received calls from all over the nation for help from WomenSV.
The group takes many precautions in an effort to ensure their clients’ safety, like a “Quick Exit” button that allows women to leave their website quickly.
Prospective clients must go through several steps, starting with a phone consultation, after which the classified office address is given over the phone. Upon arrival at the unmarked and nondescript location, women are instructed to leave all of their electronic devices in a location away from the office to safeguard against spying and tracking. The door to the office boasts four different locks and multiple exits.
Darlene’s vision is for WomenSV to grow into a training headquarters focusing on treating domestic abuse for medical professionals across the nation and implementing school programs on healthy relationships. She cites awareness as a large part of what WomenSV does and how she hopes to achieve a larger reach in the years to come.
“Everyone knows that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month,” Darlene said. “One in eight women will be a victim of breast cancer. Not everybody knows that October is Domestic Abuse Awareness month. One in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime.”