Domestic abuse cases rise sharply County's 19% jump in '96 reflects trend in suburban areas

904 incidents last year

Simpson case is said to encourage victims to report assaults

March 23, 1997|By Jill Hudson | Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

A teen-ager opens the townhouse door to two police officers. Tears speckle her smooth cheeks. She points to the staircase behind her and says, "Thank God you've come. They're up there fighting again."

Such scenes are increasingly familiar to Howard County police, who recorded more than 900 incidents of domestic violence last year -- a figure that shot up 19 percent from 1995.

That's at least one domestic call per shift for most Howard patrol officers. And as any county officer will say, these calls have a way of getting ugly fast.

On this snowy night last month, Officers Dominick Digiacomo and Tina Jenkins enter the house in a Columbia neighborhood. They round the landing on the staircase and see a stocky man with a hatchet towering over a woman. She's screaming.

The man is quickly handcuffed and taken into a back bedroom. The woman -- his wife -- darts about, stuffing a few pieces of clothing into a plastic trash bag, shouting that she wants out.

Their 5-year-old daughter sits in a nearby room. She watches a videotape and mouths the words to a song from "The Lion King."

It's 10 p.m. This is the first domestic call of the night for Digiacomo and Jenkins, but it won't be the last.

This family is like many others they see every day, caught in a devastating -- and sometimes deadly -- cycle of domestic abuse.

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

Baltimore-area police data show that the biggest increases in reports of domestic violence between 1994 and 1995 were in the suburban counties of Howard and Anne Arundel.

While many familiar with the issue agree that abuse is increasing, they note that other factors are also involved in the statistical jump.

Attention from media

Judy Clancy, executive director of Howard County's Domestic Violence Center in Columbia, says more attention is being paid to domestic abuse -- not only in this county, but all over the country.

"The attention that the media has paid to this issue has given women the courage to be able to call 911 for help," she says.

Clancy and many others credit the media attention surrounding the 1994 slaying of Nicole Brown Simpson with bringing the issue of spousal abuse into the spotlight.

Clancy says it helped many women understand what was happening to them.

"It's not just about being hit," she says of such abuse.

Since the Simpson case, "many women may have begun to recognize that they were being abused, and that there are resources out there to help them -- like shelters, counseling groups and legal aid to help them through the court system."

Says Officer Vaughn Dykes, an Anne Arundel police spokesman: "More people are finally coming forward to report these crimes to the police."

He recalled the days when patrol officers may have been tempted to write off a domestic case as a family matter not worthy of a report.

"In the past, police were counseled to be the mediators in domestic violence situations," he says.

Dykes says Maryland law now requires police patrol officers who respond to domestic abuse calls to inform victims and their children of restraining orders, shelters, anti-stalking laws and telephone numbers they can call for information about other resources.

Suburban illusion

Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Denver, says Simpson's murder may have had an even more profound effect on battered women in wealthy areas such as Howard County -- one of the richest counties in the country in terms of household income.

As a result of that murder, Smith says, many victims realized that what they once may have viewed as a poor woman's burden was happening to them, too.

"I suspect that there's a false sense of security in suburbia," Smith says. "There isn't a place that you can live and a lifestyle that you can lead where they can escape domestic violence."

Smith says that the suburban illusion of perfection can mask the fact that people in affluent neighborhoods experience the same problems as those in lower economic strata.

"Some of these wealthy white guys who live in the suburbs may look like they've got it all together," says Christopher Murphy, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and coordinator of batterers' services for the Howard County Domestic Violence Center.

"But inside, he's just as stressed out or has the same sort of conflicts in his relationships as a poor man," Murphy says.

Murphy says that while batterers are a diverse lot who cut across all races and social strata, domestic abuse is slightly more common among poor men who go through long periods of unemployment.

"There is some evidence which suggests that men who are employed may feel that they have something to lose," Murphy says. "They may be more responsive to the threat of being arrested and incarceration, or losing their jobs and family."

Controlling behavior

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