Domestic violence response targeted Baltimore Co. trains law enforcement staff to raise awareness

November 18, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Sandra Lee Owens says her husband began hitting her six months after they got married in 1988 and continued until 1994.

Baltimore County police officers who responded when she called 911, she says, were not always trained to help. And when her husband repeatedly harassed her by telephone after being jailed for battering her, she says she got what felt like a brush-off from his probation officer.

The less-than-ideal response from different law enforcement agencies is expected to change as the county improves training for officials involved with domestic violence.

One is the Domestic Violence Partnership Project, set to begin training police officers next month.

Funded by a one-year, $200,000 federal grant, it pairs police officers and crisis counselors from nonprofit agencies who go together to a victim's home within two days of a third domestic violence report to offer support and services.

Meanwhile, county domestic violence specialists have recently trained corrections officers to identify ways offenders often violate probation. Some ways include contacting victims by phone, going to see them when they've been ordered not to, and beating them again.

Judges will also get training soon on dealing with repeat offenders.

The goal of these efforts is for the victim to find help from law enforcement officials.

"If a victim gets the same message with some continuity, then it really makes an impact on her because they all seem concerned" about her well-being, said Karen Keyser, the Family Violence Unit coordinator for the county's Department of Social Services.

Nationwide, 3 million to 4 million women are victims of domestic violence every year. In Baltimore County, 3,200 cases were reported between January and September, and about 90 percent of the victims were women, according to police.

Almost half the Baltimore County cases involve victims who have previously had contact with police involving domestic violence, according to Lt. Robert A. Benedetto, commander of the county's Family Crimes Unit.

Owens, 36, was one such case.

Her husband pushed her down a flight of stairs in their Owings Mills home while she was pregnant with their first child. He continued to attack her -- once pushing her head into a wall because she came home late.

"I always had to watch myself to try not to set him off," she said. "I was frightened to death -- I was frightened that he was going to end up killing me."

She recalls fleeing in 1992 to a 7-Eleven after a brutal beating by her husband. An officer took her home to get a change of clothes, but when they arrived, another officer said, "You have such a nice house -- can't you work it out?" The officers took a report but made no arrest.

Police response is intended to change with the partnership. The program will focus on cases where three calls to 911 have been made without an arrest. That can happen in cases where the attacker has left, the victim is too upset to talk or is too afraid to tell the truth and police don't have enough evidence to make an arrest.

The program calls for social workers and police to visit the victims and spend time with them, telling them how to file a restraining order, get medical and legal help and join a support group. They will also direct the abuser to treatment.

"The point [of this new program] is not coming in on the heels of a crisis, when the victim's ability to hear information may be limited," said Patricia J. Lanning, a director of the state Office of Family and Children's Services, which is involved in the initiative.

Meanwhile, police will look for new evidence that could lead to an arrest -- including fresh bruises or statements from the victim.

Even when police make an arrest and prosecutors win conviction, the abuse sometimes continues. It did for Owens, who is now divorced, lives in Glen Burnie and works as a customer service agent at BWI Airport.

She finally left her husband in January 1994. That November, he was convicted of assault and battery and given a 30-day jail sentence with three years suspended, plus three years of supervised probation.

But while in jail, and after his release, he harassed her with repeated phone calls -- a violation of probation because he was not to have contact with her.

About four months ago, she called his probation officer to report the contact, but from his response, she got the impression that "he didn't want me calling him, that he didn't want to listen to me, that I should just file charges. I don't think he really wanted to hear it."

Some agents ignore calls such as Owens' because abusers have warned them, " 'It's my crazy, delusional wife, so when she calls, don't believe her,' " said Keyser of the county's social services department.

"I don't think [agents] thought it was their role to get involved with the victim," Keyser said.

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