"When we talk about spouse abuse we're really talking about wife-beating," Thomas M. Geib, Arlington County's mental health services division chief, told the members of a Virginia House of Delegates subcommittee who came to Falls Church Monday for one of a series of statewide public hearings on the problem of battered spouses.
The subcommittee, which includes Dels. Mary A. Marshall and Warren G. Stambaugh both of Arlington, is holding the hearings for the purpose of drafting legislation to be introduced in the next legislative session.
The subcommittee heard testimony from a variety of witnesses including battered wives, mental health workers and a Faifax County police department representative, all of whom said that priority should be given to establishing emergency shelter centers for women. The only emergency shelter in Northern Virginia is scheduled to open Monday in McLean.
Many witnesses also testified that the courts and police in Northern Virginia are insensitive to the needs of abused women and are reluctant to take any action against abusive men.
"In order to get anything done you have to scream and holler," said Robert Neuville, the Fairfax County father of a 21-year-old woman who was allegedly beaten and choked by the husband she is now divorcing. "I feared for my daughter's life," said Neuville, who told the committee that he believes male chauvinism is responsible for what he termed police inaction. "The reaction to me is different than the reaction to my daughter," Neuville said, explaining why he, rather than his daughter, made repeated calls to police and law enforcement officials for assistance for his daughter and her 3-year-old son.
Patricia Robson, a member of the Alexandria Commission on the Status of Women, told the committee about her quest eight years ago for regue from a husband who she said had beat her so severely over a period of 12 years that she was hospitalized twice. Robson said that her ex-husband was not "a callow bully" but a "very disturbed man" who refused counseling and took out his frustrations on his family. Robson said his outbursts included hitting "one of (their daughters) in the mouth with the back of an ax."
Robson, who lived in McLean at the time, said she and her four children put up with the beatings because she had no money of her own, no relatives, no credit and no place to go. She said she contacted a host of social service agencies which told her they couldn't help. She finally found a male employee in one agency - she said she remembered neither the agency nor the man's name - who placed her and her children in a motel cottage in Fairfax for two weeks. "It was absolutely crucial . . . it gave me back my life," she said of the two-week period, during which she said she was able to calm down, comfort her children, find a job and begin divorce proceedings.
Attorney Abe Spero of Fairfax, whose practice largely consists of domestic cases, decried the "totally confused, unresponsive situation a wife faces" when she asks the police, the courts or a county agency for help.
According to Spero, abusive husbands in Northern Virginia often receive suspended sentences or are told to "go home and make up." Spero also said that a woman with children faces an additional legal problem: if she flees her home, leaving children behind "there's a good chance of losing custody" in the event of a divorce, he said. Robson noted that eight years ago a judge awarded her only $25 per week in child support because she said, the judge ruled that she had "deserted" her husband.
Gertrude Brisendine, vice chairman of the Fairfax County Commission for Women, discussed the new Fairfax County Women's Shelter which will open Monday. The shelter which will be open 24 hours a day and will provide room and board to women and children for as long as necessary. However, she noted that because the shelter can only house eight people she expects to be deluged with requests for help from battered women within a few weeks.
Jared Stout of the Fairfax County Police Department said he felt existing laws were sufficient and agreed that bureaucratic responsiveness and sensitivity were problems.
Other recommendations to the subcommittee included the establishment of a toll-free hotline similar to that for reporting and assisting in child abuse cases, clarification of Virginia divorce laws to protect the custody, property and support rights of women who flee their homes, and the elimination of the situation under which more affluent women don't qualify for legal aid because eligibility is based on their husband's income.