The Montgomery County Council last week approved $206,000 in budget funds for a new comprehensive county crisis center to be housed in the former Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad building in Bethesda.
The center, which the Montgomery County Police Department helped county officials design, would provide for the first time, special treatment and counseling facilities for victims of rape and other sexual assaults who now go to what originated as a county center for drug abuse. In addition, the new crisis center on Auburn Avenue in Bethesda will house treatment and counseling facilities for victims of spouse abuse and other crises.
The council voted 6 to 0, with Jane Ann Moore abstaining, to approve the funds for the center, which may open as early as October. Council Member Esther Gelman said County Executive James P. Gleason's proposal for the center showed "courage and sensitivity," but some women's groups and community activists who testified at the public hearing on the funds two weeks ago strongly opposed it.
Despite the constant availability of counselors at the 24-hour, seven-day-a week center, opponents of the county proposal argued, a victim who walked into the center - or telephoned - would not necessarily find a counselor or volunteer trained to deal with the victim's particular problem.
"The person who is sexually assaulted is usually a mentally healthy person undergoing severe trauma," said Phyllis West of Montgomery County National Organization for Women. "The abused spouse has been undergoing trauma, usually for a long time. They are usually two distinct problems."
However, county health officer Dr. J. Brett Lazar said in a telephone interview after the hearing, "When you have people with professional expertise, you expect them to be able to handle all crisis problems."
Lazar noted that any client, abused or sexually assaulted, who wants long-term counseling will be given the choice of continuing long-term counseling with the person they first meet at the time of the crisis or with another counselor trained specifically to handle sexual assault or spouse abuse.
Currently, there is a program for abused persons that is staffed by volunteers and backed by counselors who arrange for abused spouses, sometimes with children, to stay in a shelter or motel. There is also a program called Passage, headquartered in a county office building on Colesville Road in Silver Spring. It was started in 1973 to counsel drug abusers and the building has ended up being used as a shelter for rape victims. Last year, Passage saw 106 rape victims.
A center designed specifically for sexually abused persons does not exist, and some women are afraid if it is created within the comprehensive crisis center, "energies for a sexual assualt center will be siphoned off," according to West.
Some women also contend that county-employed counselors and volunteers cannot act as advocates for victims in what those familiar with courts say is an often traumatizing judicial process of court hearings and trials. "You can't work for the county and take on the system as an advocate," said Jeanne E. Harris, president of the Montgomery County Commission for Women.
"The overriding problem is a lack of advocacy," said Karen Helfert, a member of the Code 3 judicial watchdog organization who has guided rape victims through court proceedings. "Defendants get defense attorneys and all kinds of goodies. Rape victims don't."
Opponents of the proposal said they wanted a hospital-based, privately run center only for sexual assault victims. Victims of other crises could use existing programs, they said.
"The service are all so badly needed that the main thing is to provide them," council president Elizabeth Scull commented after the public hearing.
"If we continue to fragment the services, the centers will go in for numbers," said Gelman. "They'll begin competing for funds on the basis of who can produce the most victims. In order to prevent that, we should put them together as one center."
The funding the county council approved came from the capital improvements budget - $171,000 to remodel the Rescue Squad building - and from the operating budget - $35,000 for possible staff hirings before the end of the fiscal year on June 30. In his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year - to be voted on by the council in May - Gleason has requested $300,000, in addition to funds for the current crisis centers, for the comprehensive crisis center.