Trying to aid targets of abuse County seeks to aid domestic violence victims find justice

March 24, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Amid the constant bustle of the clerk's office at Howard County Circuit Court -- people filing lawsuits, getting marriage licenses, posting bail -- Helen Houston sat for hours in a chair along the wall, tears rolling down her face.

The day before, the Columbia woman said, her estranged husband burst into the day care center where she worked -- yelling at her in front of colleagues, causing her young son to sob. She had gone to the courthouse seeking protection.

But before she got a temporary restraining order against her husband that day last month, Houston found a lonely and lengthy process -- one that many battered or harassed women face when they seek legal remedies to their problems in this affluent, suburban county.

"All I want is to be heard" by a judge, Houston, 26, said four hours into her wait. "I have to get the restraining order not only for me, but for my two children, who are terrified -- and for my employer, so I know I can go to work every day."

Howard County advocates for victims of domestic violence, judges and prosecutors are trying to end lonely ordeals such as that endured by Houston. But their efforts are far behind those of neighboring jurisdictions.

"I don't think it's negligence," says Denise McCain, victim-witness director of the Howard County state's attorney's office. "But it really hasn't been an issue that has been brought to the court's attention."

The county's Domestic Violence Center is forming a family violence council -- made up of judges, prosecutors and advocates -- to determine, among other things, how the court process for domestic violence victims can be improved.

Organizers say they hope not only to shorten the wait to see a judge, but also to find a better place in the courthouse for the women and their children to wait during delays.

They also want to increase the number of alleged batterers prosecuted and develop a stronger support system for victims.

'A lonely road'

One thing all agree on is that too many women go through the system alone.

Advocates for victims of domestic violence say that because the reality of abuse contrasts with Howard County's peaceful image, a social stigma is attached to seeking help. And few people know aid exists because the problem gets little local attention and scant resources.

"What do people come here for? The quality of life," says McCain. Recreation, relaxation and good education "have been the dominant themes here. Crime and domestic violence have not."

Adds Howard Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney: "Someone who is living in a family making $125,000 a year thinks, 'I don't have to call a domestic violence center. That's for poor people.' "

This attitude persists despite increasing numbers of women reporting cases of domestic violence, advocates say.

In fiscal 1995, 269 temporary protective order hearings were held in Howard's District Court -- an average of 22 per month. In fiscal 1996, the monthly average rose to 23. Thirty hearings held last month -- about a third more than last year's monthly average.

The vast majority of these victims went to court alone. According state data from fiscal 1995, 125 hearings -- virtually all of them sought by women -- were held in Howard District Court on requests for longer protective orders; in only 12 of those cases did the victims have attorneys. In only one of the eight hearings last month in Howard District Court seeking such orders did a victim have an attorney, state data show.

"It's a lonely road," McCain says. "It's not a walk you want to take by yourself."

But, perhaps more worrisome for advocates, the women who make it to court represent only a small percentage of those who call police for help.

Lack of court support cited

McCain says that of every four women in Howard County who file a complaint with police, fewer than one appears in court to press charges. She thinks one reason for the low rate is that abused women often don't feel they have support within the court system.

Unlike some other Baltimore-area counties that offer extensive programs to walk domestic violence victims through the legal process, Howard is only beginning to focus on this problem.

The Howard state's attorney's office -- which prosecuted 309 cases of domestic abuse last year -- received a $28,000 federal grant last fall aimed at increasing the number of prosecutions.

The money will be used to train volunteers to encourage victims to follow through on charges, and to purchase equipment -- such as cameras to record injuries -- that will help prosecutors win convictions.

Victims who file charges now often hear nothing until a prosecutor calls months later, just days before the trial.

"Prosecutors have not been able to go forward with a lot of cases because they have not had the support of the victim," McCain says. Without contact or reassurance, victims may feel intimidated by the system and their abusers, she says.

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