Family violence rising in Maryland, report indicates Coordinated state program aimed at prevention is urged

July 17, 1991|By James Bock

Family violence has reached epidemic proportions in Maryland, and government efforts must be reorganized to deal with it, according to an 18-month study by a group of local experts.

"Broken Bodies, Broken Spirits," the report written for the Goldseker Foundation by the Family Violence Coalition, found that last year:

* About 16,000 cases of spousal assault were reported in Maryland. The vast majority of victims were women.

* Nearly 25,000 cases of child maltreatment -- 9,504 for physical abuse, 4,003 for sexual abuse and 11,438 for neglect -- were investigated in the state.

* Seventy women were killed by their partners in Maryland.

The coalition found that domestic violence, child abuse and crime often are interrelated, but these typically are treated separately by bureaucracies acting in isolation.

The report proposes that Maryland develop a model program for dealing with family violence -- from the classroom to the courtroom.

"People have been working on pieces of the problem. There is no state with a comprehensive program in place," said Michael Cenci, assistant executive director of Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland and a member of the group.

"We're really a pioneer," said Elaine R. Fisher, executive director of Parents Anonymous of Maryland and a coalition member. "We're unique in pulling together all aspects of family violence."

Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's special secretary for children, youth and families, said the state would use the report as a "blueprint" for increasing coordination among agencies to deal more effectively with family violence.

"I really applaud the effort," Dr. Grasmick said.

The coalition did not say where additional money to mount an attack on family violence would come from. It admitted that a comprehensive approach would be expensive but contended that the costs of crime and lost productivity due to untreated family violence are much greater.

"There has not been a lot of funding put into prevention, where we think the greatest savings to society and people would occur. Dollars get drained into crises," Mr. Cenci said.

Ms. Fisher said the coalition must convince Marylanders that family violence strips children of their self-worth and, as research shows, may lead them to delinquency and crime.

"You pay for it in tax dollars every time a bigger prison is built, and you pay for it when your children go out on the street and you worry they may be the next victim of someone who has no conscience," she said.

Family violence "crosses all social and economic barriers," said Melissa McC. Warlow, project director for the study. "However, TC when there are stresses, if there's not enough to eat or no place to live, that may push it further in some neighborhoods."

Ms. Fisher said that as the economy has worsened this year, calls from abusers to the Parents Anonymous hot line have increased.

"People are stressed out and haven't learned how to deal with their problems," she said. "They learned from their own childhoods that when something awful happens, you hit on somebody else."

National studies have shown that in 70 percent of families where women are battered, children are physically abused as well. Children who are abused are more likely to grow up to be adults who batter their own children, the report says.

Domestic violence "is not a women's issue, it's not a children's issue, it's a family issue and it goes from generation to generation," Ms. Fisher said.

Among the group's recommendations are that:

* Courts be given greater authority to protect child and adult victims of abuse. Twenty percent of domestic assaults in Maryland occur after a woman has separated from her partner, the report says.

* All juvenile offenders be interviewed to see if they have been abused, and offered treatment, if needed.

* Hospitals and schools routinely identify and document cases of abuse and refer victims for treatment.

* Employers offer child and spouse abusers the counseling and other help that many now give alcoholics and drug abusers.

More shelter beds are needed for women and children, the coalitionsaid. Nearly a quarter of the 4,800 homeless people in Maryland on any given night are women and children who have fled violence at home, the report said. But 10 of the state's 23 counties have no shelters for battered women.

The state spends $1.4 million a year on 18 shelters for victims of family violence, the study said. "In [fiscal year 1990], the Baltimore Zoo spent twice as much money to care for animals as the state spent to provide safety for women and children in all 18 shelters," it added.

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