NO ONE FULLY understands how intimacy can spin so badly out of control that families live in mortal fear of each other. Husbands murder wives; adult children abuse their frail parents; women poison their mates; children are bruised or starved by the same people who gave them life.
The biggest toll falls on women, with children often suffering the fallout from the violence between their parents.
If domestic abuse touches a tangle of human passions, it also bedevils the social and legal facilities that are supposed to cope with such tragedies. For the past year, the Maryland Family Violence Council has spearheaded a comprehensive assessment of the state's response to these situations and the resources available to help families cope.
Spearheaded by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., the council has sought testimony from victims and service providers. It has reviewed state laws, court procedures and arrest policies, and it has surveyed services and programs available to victims and perpetrators. Now it is ready with a list of suggested improvements.
What is striking about the state's system for handling these cases is that there is nothing systematic about it.
A single call to 911 from a household where a woman and child are being abused can lead to contact with as many as a dozen different agencies or services, most of whom rarely talk to each other about any single case. Communication and coordination between the police, the courts, prosecutors, parole and probation officials, health-care providers or social-services agencies is routinely poor and sometimes nonexistent.
The stories gleaned from public hearings illustrate -- sometimes brutally -- how holes in the system can put people in mortal danger.
A worker in a domestic-violence program told the panel this story: ''The victim's husband was under evaluation in the mental ward of a local hospital. She was notified [of his release] when she woke from a nap with him standing over her holding a bat. She nearly was beaten to death.''
As the council discovered, there is no process for notifying victim when an accused abuser will be released from police custody -- a situation that can lead to ugly and dangerous surprises. One of the report's recommendations is an automated statewide system for victim notification.
But what about notifying police of abuse in the first place?
A woman had this to say: ''I called 911 and I called my son-in-law. My son-in-law came from Virginia, and he got there before the police. I had to call 911 twice to find out where the officers were. It took a long time.''
The council recommends stricter hiring standards and better training for 911 operators and dispatchers, as well as written policies establishing domestic-violence and sexual-assault calls as priorities.
In terms of law-enforcement policies and training, there are wide variations among the various jurisdictions in Maryland. In some places, officers do not write police reports for domestic calls and seldom arrest abusers. Or they fail to collect adequate evidence, making prosecution difficult even when an arrest is made.
The council strongly suggests pro-arrest policies, along with other changes designed to make prosecution of abusers and protection of vulnerable partners much easier than it is now.
As a police offer told the council, ''The offender needs to be treated as a criminal. They are only different from the common street thug in that the crimes they commit are usually more methodical, they are more brutal and they are more cruel.''
That bleak view surely holds true in many cases. But the real test of any state's efforts to combat domestic violence will come in its ability to convey the clear message that abusing a family member is as serious a crime as a street assault.
As the council's report illustrates, abusers in Maryland now get a mixed message about the seriousness of the offense, while their victims don't get the protection they need. Documenting the extent of the problem is the first step toward solving it.
Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.
Pub Date: 11/24/96