Domestic abuse response sluggish Police, court efforts are fragmented, state report says

November 23, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Maryland's domestic violence victims sometimes face a sluggish, fragmented response from police, courts and social service providers, according to a report being released Monday by the state Attorney General's and Lt. Governor's Family Violence Council.

The 114-page study -- a year in the making -- urges law enforcement agencies to be more aggressive in prosecuting domestic abuse cases, and recommends a swifter and more active response to domestic violence victims from police and other officials.

Called "Stop the Violence: A Call To Action," the report was the work of a group chaired by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, with a membership that includes state's attorneys, police and sheriffs department officials, battered women's advocates, lawyers, lawmakers, and judges from around the state.

State officials say that 24,000 Marylanders were victims of domestic abuse in 1994 and 1995. An estimated 4 million are victims nationwide.

"One of the major problems that we found around the state was a fragmented response to family violence," said Rachel A. Wohl, a former Assistant Attorney General who now directs the council.

Among the report's conclusions:

Some 911 operators, police and judges do not respond with urgency to family violence problems.

Court commissioners, who can initiate criminal prosecution of abusers, are not always accessible at night, especially in rural areas.

Victims of domestic violence are not always warned when their abusers are released from police custody.

Too few shelters operate around the state; for example, only 10 shelter beds serve five Eastern Shore counties.

The council urges that the state's Office of Parole and Probation create a family violence unit to intensely supervise people convicted of domestic violence.

It supports the creation of a court for domestic violence in jurisdictions large enough to have one, such as Baltimore City, where one is being tried.

And it recommends that courts sentence crimes of family violence as they do other violent crimes.

The council also is calling for changes in laws pertaining to domestic violence victims, including a law allowing longer protective orders and quicker divorces in cases where the court has found abuse exists.

To research the study, the council held public hearings in Pikesville, Waldorf, Cumberland and Wye Mills, where victims -- unnamed in the report -- told of their harrowing experiences.

One victim said she woke up from a nap to find her abuser, who she thought was locked away, standing over her with a baseball bat.

The council found that a shortage in resources can make it hard for victims to get services.

"It takes a lot for a victim to leave, so when they finally get the resources to leave, sometimes [a lack of services] forces them to go back, because there are no places to go," said Jeanne M. MacLeod, community education coordinator of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, who worked on the study.

"There's still a lot of that attitude that this is a private family matter," added Wohl. And there is not a lot of understanding that "frequently it's a much more brutal, repetitive kind of crime than stranger violence tends to be," she said.

Some of the efforts recommended are being implemented in parts of the state. Baltimore County prosecutors retrained parole and probation officers in September; and the city and county bar association recently published a domestic violence resource directory.

In addition, Talbot County in 1995 convicted a man of battery in a domestic violence case in which the victim refused to testify.

The council's report will be released at noon Monday at War Memorial Plaza in downtown Baltimore. It was near there on June 25 that Rhonda Romero was fatally shot by her estranged husband, from whom she was seeking the court's protection.

Anyone interested in obtaining the report can write to The Family Violence Council, 200 St. Paul Place, 20th Floor, Baltimore 21202.

Pub Date: 11/23/96

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