Cellular phones join war on abuse

Donated devices given to victims of domestic violence

May 19, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Early last year a woman was driving through Howard County, trying to escape her abusive husband, who was following her, honking his car's horn, flashing its lights and screaming.

She picked up her cellular phone and called the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County, where counselors gave her directions to a local police station and safety.

It is an example of how powerful and helpful a cellular phone can be, domestic violence experts and authorities say. To get cellular phones into the hands of more domestic violence victims to increase their safety, the Howard County Sheriff's Office is asking for donations.

But deputies don't want money -- just deactivated cellular phones to pass along to those victims so they can dial 911 at no cost.

Cpl. Bryan Waser, who heads the office's domestic violence unit, said deputies have collected 15 phones since the donation program started last month. Some of them are older, bulkier models.

"Right now, we're not going to be picky," Waser said. "But we'd like the smaller ones that people can carry."

Because sheriff's deputies often are the first law enforcement officers to speak to victims after they have filed restraining orders, it's critical that they be able to give them cellular phones and peace of mind, Waser said.

Howard sheriff's deputies are modeling the program after one run by the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office. Last month, more than 100 victims used donated phones there, said Bonnie Royenstad, an aide in Montgomery's domestic violence unit.

"There were a couple of instances where people said that, `I'm really glad I had this, because I had to use it,' " Royenstad said.

All cellular phones, even deactivated ones, can dial 911. Officials with the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County, who related the story of the woman who used her cell phone to escape her husband, said they have noticed that more women are seeking help against domestic violence.

In fiscal year 1999, about 800 people went to the center; in fiscal year 2000, which ends June 30, it is likely to see more than 1,000.

Cell phones give victims an added sense of security, said Judy Clancy, the center's executive director. In the past two years, the center, Howard County police and the state's attorney have distributed to victims 24 cellular phones donated by Bell Atlantic.

"At least you can attempt to call for assistance," Clancy said. "It's a true help for peace of mind."

Cell phones have become popular weapons in the war against domestic violence across the country. In Phoenix, a women's group is sponsoring a drive to give cellular phones to victims of abuse; in Illinois, state legislators are rounding up cellular phones and giving them to domestic violence shelters and social service agencies.

Though many experts and police say cellular phones can help victims quickly report impending danger, the devices also can offer a false sense of security.

Last month, a 20-year-old Pennsylvania woman driving with three friends through that state was frantically called 911 dispatchers on her cellular phone as they were being chased by her estranged boyfriend, authorities said.

Her car was pushed into an oncoming train by the boyfriend's car, the authorities said. The woman and her three passengers died after the train plowed into the vehicle.

Waser, Clancy and others concede that the cellular phones might not always protect victims, especially if attackers are intent on harming them.

"It's just another tool," Waser said. "They can call and get to someplace safe, like a mall. It lets them make contact."

A victim of domestic violence can file for a restraining order, which lasts for seven days, in either Circuit or District Court. Both parties must then appear before a judge, who can extend the protection for up to a year.

In Howard County, the number of people filing domestic abuse allegations rose slightly during the past few years. In fiscal year 1997, there were 332 cases filed in District Court; that number climbed 6.9 percent to 335 in fiscal year 1999.

Nationwide, the U.S. Justice Department reported Wednesday that violence against women fell 21 percent between 1993 and 1998. Yet 22 percent of female victims of violence were attacked by an intimate partner, Justice officials said.

"I'd like to give a phone to anyone who comes in here and says they are a victim of domestic violence," said Waser, sitting at his desk in the Sheriff's Office across the street from the courthouse.

Sheriff's deputies are getting ready to start passing out the deactivated phones. But they'd like more, Waser said, especially if they come with chargers or spare batteries.

Sheriff's program information: 410-313-4152. Deputies will pick up donated phones. Domestic Violence Center information: hot line, 410-997-2272; main office at 410-997-0304.

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