Activists Take to Prince George's Pulpits To Break a Pattern of Domestic Violence

Debra Williams, left, who conceived Project Safe Sunday, and Yvette Cade, a domestic violence survivor, at Fort Foote Baptist Church in Fort Washington, where they spoke about abuse.
Debra Williams, left, who conceived Project Safe Sunday, and Yvette Cade, a domestic violence survivor, at Fort Foote Baptist Church in Fort Washington, where they spoke about abuse. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Avis Thomas-Lester and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 9, 2006

Yvette Cade stepped up to the microphone and the church went silent.

"I am a victim of domestic violence. I was set on fire by my estranged husband," she said, head held high, looking out over the 350 or so people gathered inside the main sanctuary at Fort Foote Baptist Church in Fort Washington. "Take a look at my scars. I was burned at 1,500 degrees. . . . One year later, I am here as a witness, a survivor and a soldier on the battlefield for Christ. Stop the domestic violence. Please."

The church erupted in a thunderous ovation. It was more than two hours into the 11 a.m. church service, and Cade, along with other Prince George's County "soldiers" in the war against domestic violence, had come to the church as part of Project Safe Sunday, a program started four years ago to bring the clergy into the effort to fight the problem. Prince George's has more domestic violence than any other jurisdiction in Maryland.

According to statistics from the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, 5,085 cases of domestic violence were filed in Prince George's District Court last year, accounting for more than 21 percent of the cases filed statewide. The county has had the highest number of cases filed for more than five years, statistics show.

The other jurisdictions with the most reported domestic violence cases last year were Baltimore City with 4,152, Baltimore County with 3,780; Anne Arundel County with 1,998; and Montgomery County with 1,712. A total of 23,627 cases were filed statewide.

Joining Cade yesterday were Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D), who has actively promoted the program, and Debra Williams, who conceived of the program in 2003 after the domestic violence slaying of her sister, Ernestine Bunn-Dyson. Dozens of churches participated in the program.

Through the program, which spread to Baltimore and Northern Virginia this year, victims of domestic violence are encouraged to report their abuse and leave violent homes, and abusers are urged to seek help to stop attacking their victims. A third goal, organizers said, is to work with ministers and other church administrators to change the sometimes antiquated thinking that leads some to believe the Bible justifies a husband's right to abuse his wife.

"Silence has been one of the biggest contributions to the problem," Ivey said in an interview. "The faith community is the place where ministers talk about the private and intimate issues. A lot of women say they turn to the church, but to be candid, some ministers take the view that some degree of [abuse] is permissible. . . . We also wanted to have a dialogue with the ministerial community to address that mentality."

Domestic violence cases filed last year include the September attack on Cade, who was set on fire after a judge dismissed a protective order against her estranged husband, Roger B. Hargrave. Three weeks later, Hargrave went to the store in Clinton where Cade worked, doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. Cade, 33, suffered horrific burns to her face, head and torso. Her estranged husband was sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder.

The issue of domestic violence in Prince George's has been under the microscope in recent days, after the publication of an article in Essence magazine highlighting stories of women in the county who were abused for years and kept quiet.

Headlined "The Secret Shame of Prince George's County," the story was denounced by members of County Executive Jack B. Johnson's administration, who accused the magazine of unfairly painting the county as unresponsive to the issue. Aides to Johnson (D) have marshaled statistics showing that county spending on domestic violence issues has risen from $1.7 million to more than $3 million in the past three years.

"How is it possible that you would paint us as a county that doesn't talk about it when we're doing things every day?" said Jacqueline F. Brown, the county's chief administrative officer and top aide to Johnson. Brown, a former family therapist, said she has counseled abuse victims.

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