Rise in Domestic Violence Cases Strains Fairfax County's Services

Venona Norman, from left, Ina Fernandez and Debra Ranf work at the Fairfax County Office for Women and Domestic and Sexual Violence Services.
Venona Norman, from left, Ina Fernandez and Debra Ranf work at the Fairfax County Office for Women and Domestic and Sexual Violence Services. (Photos By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009

The calls seeking help have come in each month by the dozens, sometimes nearly double the number from a year before. A woman, concerned about her recently unemployed husband's continued abuse, is looking for a haven. A relative, worried about a sister, mother or daughter, wants to know how and where to refer her for help.

In Fairfax County, job losses have led to longer lines at food pantries and unemployment insurance and social services offices. Now there is another effect of a continued wilting economy: a steady rise in domestic violence calls because of mounting stress among families pinched at every turn, county officials said. The increased search for help, largely among women with children, has stretched the county's one publicly financed shelter and led to waiting lists for counselors and therapists.

"Economic stress is often not the sole cause but a major contributing factor for families already in distress," said Ina Fernandez, director of the Fairfax County Office for Women and Domestic and Sexual Violence Services. "If there's already stress in the family and if one person loses a job, it's almost like the straw that breaks the camel's back. It's not a causal factor but a contributing one."

Officials said much of the marked increase has come in domestic violence calls to the county's Victim Assistance Network. Requests for assistance were up 23 percent during the first half of the year over the same period last year. In some months, the year-to-year increases were striking. For instance, in March 2008, the hotline received 44 domestic violence calls; a year later, it received 91.

"When you are losing control of everything, you try to control anything you can," Fernandez said.

She said requests for domestic violence counselors has risen so quickly that her office had a 24-person waiting list in April, leading to a three-week wait for support. Often there are not delays for such services, she said.

The impact is also showing up at Artemis House, the county's domestic violence shelter. Clients can stay up to 45 days in the 35-bed facility. Although there has always been a demand for services, the shelter has been consistently full over the past year, reflecting a need for more county-sponsored services, said Debra Ranf, the shelter's coordinator.

Ranf said the economy is making it hard for women, who report 90 percent of the domestic violence cases in the county, to break away from their abusive relationships.

"Forty-five days really is a short period of time," Ranf said. "And in this economy, it makes it hard for our clients to remain independent because they can't find the jobs they need to survive on their own."

Counselors across Northern Virginia said they have seen many of their clients, mostly women, return to their partners' home faster than usual because they have been unable to support themselves on one salary. In some cases, the women return to the shelter within the month because they were abused again.

Domestic violence calls increase and requests for shelter beds often swell during economic downturns, according to recent national research. Studies by the National Institute of Justice have consistently found that domestic violence is more likely to occur when couples are worried about or under financial strain.

In a 2004 survey, 2.7 percent of couples reported domestic violence issues while experiencing low levels of "subjective financial strain." Meanwhile, 9.5 percent of couples experiencing high levels of financial strain reported domestic violence issues.

A government study found that when men were always employed, the rate of intimate partner violence was 4.7 percent. When men experienced one period of unemployment, the rate rose to 7.5 percent. And when men experienced two or more periods of unemployment, the rate climbed to 12.3 percent.

Locally, the increases are not just in Fairfax. This spring at Doorways for Women and Children in Arlington County, calls were up 35 percent from last year, although requests for rooms have remained consistent at the shelter. In addition, the number of people seeking court services related to abuse doubled in Arlington over the last year.

Catholic Charities, which runs a national network of social service agencies, has reported a spike in domestic violence in many parts of the country.

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