Abused women get 'Unity' Volunteer group offers support SOUTHEAST -- Sykesville * Eldersburg * Gamber

December 22, 1992|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

Women who have found themselves locked in abusive relationships have been turning to Unity for long-term help.

Unity, a nonprofit advocacy group for battered women and their children, was formed in 1985 by Angela M. Lee, 50, of Eldersburg, and five other volunteers. The group operates in connection with shelters, local governments, public libraries and school guidance counselors, emphasizing that the help it gives is just a phone call away.

"We give victims a basic overall comprehension and provide them with people who can talk out specifics," she said. "We get them to the 'I like me' stage."

Many of the organization's volunteers are former abuse victims, who "understand the subtle nuances of abusive relationships," Ms. Lee said.

Nearly 20 years ago, during her first marriage, she was a battered wife, Ms. Lee said. Without discussing her problem with anyone, she left her abusive husband, transferred jobs within her company and moved to another city.

"At that time, women just didn't discuss abuse," she said.

She never knew that another friend and employee of the same company was dealing with a similar situation -- until the woman's husband shot her to death.

"We were going through the same ordeal, and we never knew or talked about it," she said. "I lived and she died."

That experience left her with a determination to help other victims.

"Most victims escape their abusers without being killed, but a percentage is unlucky," she said. "There is no way of knowing ahead of time who will pay the heavy price."

Not only did Ms. Lee survive, she said, she learned enough from her experience to become an advocate for other victims.

Now happily remarried, she said she has not forgotten the trauma she endured.

While volunteering for several years on a crisis hot line, Ms. Lee found a need for ongoing assistance beyond the point of crisis. In 1985, she organized Unity for "victims who need help over the long haul."

The original six-member group started meeting in the kitchen of Ms. Lee's Eldersburg home.

"We called ourselves a union of and for battered women, and hoped women found strength in our numbers."

Since its formation, Unity's volunteers have spread over several surrounding counties and states.

"Our volunteers run the gamut from answering minimal questions to working with a woman for years," said Ms. Lee. "Primarily, we pick up where the shelter leaves off."

Many women have walked away from everything and into a shelter, she said. They have young children, no money, no job and no means of transportation. They need friendship, support and advice on long-term issues.

"We try to tailor our assistance to each woman's particular needs," she said. "We allow the battered woman to tell us what her needs are."

An abuser totally controls his victim, until she becomes "almost a nonperson," Ms. Lee said. So Unity volunteers work "to put together all those pieces an abuser has torn apart."

Battered women must learn to deal with their experiences and to detect the warning signals, she said, because if they don't work through their ordeal and learn from it, they may fall into the same trap in a future relationship. They can only rediscover their own self-esteem with the realization that another person, the abuser, is responsible for the crime.

"They must understand the controlling personality so well that bells and whistles go off when they meet the next man," she said.

Victims also must never let their defenses down, she said, because an abuser perceives passivity as a sign of weakness.

One of Ms. Lee's friends, a former victim who now works in a state's attorney's office in another state, helps abuse victims push their cases through criminal and civil courts.

The woman speaks in a rasping voice and always wears a scarf around her neck. When a victim's resolve to prosecute her abuser wavers, the court worker removes the scarf to reveal the scar where her husband slashed her throat. He also stabbed her several times.

"She turned her back for a minute and she almost died," said Ms. Lee. "She uses her own example, telling victims the abuse won't stop, and urges them to see their cases through the court system."

Conviction in the courts sends the message that domestic violence is a crime, Ms. Lee said.

"The criminal justice system has come to the point where it recognizes the inherent danger in abuse. No abuse should be minimized, because we can't judge who is the most dangerous abuser."

Shelters now have taken over many of Unity's initial services, such as court accompaniment, and "that's just great," Ms. Lee said.

"Our thought has always been a wish that there would be no further need for our services."

But Unity still needs volunteers, Ms. Lee said.

Information: 795-4849.

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