Small cards offer help to violence victims

Information designed for domestic abuse sufferers

October 24, 2003|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

When folded, the plain white card with black lettering is the size of a business card - small enough to fit easily into a wallet, a pocket or in a shoe.

But the information on it is powerful enough to save lives. The new safety card offers basic tips and essential phone numbers for victims of domestic violence - the kind of information that could help in a dangerous situation.

"We like small informational pieces like this because it's easy for people to hide it ... if they need to," said Judy Clancy, executive director of the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County in Columbia, a private nonprofit agency that offers a hot line, counseling and legal services, and shelter to victims and their children.

The card has information customized for each of Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore City, and includes such information as local phone numbers for domestic violence centers, state's attorneys, police and sheriff's departments, and courthouses.

The card also offers a list that advises victims on how to craft a safety plan. Among the tips: Plan an escape in the event of a violent incident; ask someone to take pictures of injuries and keep them in a safe place; hide a spare set of keys, money, extra clothes and prescription medication; open your own bank account; and keep coins, a calling card or a charged cell phone on hand.

Nearly 70,000 cards have been distributed statewide in recent weeks to organizations that deal with abuse victims daily - including police and sheriff's departments, and private aid organizations. About 70,000 more will be printed to satisfy greater-than-expected demand, according to the Maryland Sheriffs' Association, which is funding the effort.

"Domestic violence is a very important thing to sheriffs because we're the ones who serve" the protection orders, said Michael F. Canning, the association's director. "It became clear that what was needed most was not another flier or leaflet but something that a victim could keep at their fingertips and have easy access to."

The safety cards come at a time when Maryland appears to be gaining success in reducing domestic violence. The number of domestic violence crimes declined during a five-year period, from 1997 to 2001, according to the latest data available from Maryland State Police.

But experts cautioned that the statistics may not be complete because of differences in reporting methods. And a tenuous economy and high unemployment create volatile situations in homes, experts and aid workers said.

"People are still victims of domestic violence, and I don't think that's going to go away anytime soon, despite the progress we've made in the state," said Michaele Cohen, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence in Bowie, which developed and designed the card. The sheriffs' association footed the bill, almost $5,000, for the first printing and will pay for the second run, too. Sue Griffin, a domestic violence coordinator for Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland in Westminster, said her office has distributed the cards to Carroll County law enforcement agencies, which give them to victims.

"I was a victim of domestic violence, and I never thought" of devising a safety plan, Griffin said. "I did not have my own bank account; I didn't have a getaway bag. ... When I left, I left a lot of stuff behind."

Duchy Trachtenberg, president of the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women, has requested cards so that NOW chapters across the state can circulate them in their communities.

"I just think it's a very smart thing to give someone because it consolidates all the information and phone numbers that can be carried in a purse or a wallet," Trachtenberg said. "It'll make it that much easier for a woman to contact the authorities. It's a way she can protect her children."

According to 2001 crime statistics from the Maryland State Police, 75 percent of domestic violence victims were women. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that one out of four domestic violence incidents are reported to police.

Cohen, the domestic violence network director, said that people might call private aid agencies for help, and not call police or apply for a civil protection order.

"We know that the numbers that are reported are a fraction of the actual incidents of domestic violence in Maryland," Cohen said.

She noted that many domestic violence shelters across the state have been filled all year. "That's not unusual," she said. "There are not enough beds in many of these communities with people coming forward."

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