The Fairfax County Shelter for Batered Women, the only publicly funded home in Northern Virginia providing counseling, emotional support and physical shelter for women who have been physically abused, is looking for a new home.
The McLean shelter, which has housed more than 100 women and children since it opened last October, is scheduled to be razed in early September to make way for a home for the elderly.
According to David Hill, director of the community residences program for the Fairfax-Falls Church Mental Health, Mental Retardation Services Board, which governs the shelter, an active search for a new site is under way.
"But we may, in fact, have to shut down for a couple of months," said Allen Schor, director of the Northwest Center for Community Mental Health, which took over operation of the shelter from the Fairfax County Commission for Women on July 1.
"Right now we are on the verge of locating a home. We have two or three investors who are willing to rent to us. We just have to negotiate the lease with the owner," said Hill.
Earlier this month an investor was found who was willing to buy a house in Vienna and rent it to the shelter. But the Westbriar Civic Association, which represents the neighborhood where the house is located, expressed overwhelming opposition to the shelter at a meeting of the Vienna Planning Commission. The commission voted 5-to-2 against recommending a special use permit for the house.
"The community at large, for reasons that are not fully clear to me, has taken a negative response to special usage of their environment," Schor said. "This community is apparently feeling encroached upon by commercial districts of Tysons Corner" and doesn't want anyone else moving in.
At the planning commission meeting, members of the Westbriar Civic Association cited reasons used across the country to stop group homes: the possibility that disgruntled husbands would come after their wives, fear that area real estate values would drop, concern that the house and yard could not accommodate the normal occupancy of five or six children.
Those concerns are unjustified, according to Esther Ochsman, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Commission for Women, which originally opened the McLean shelter.
In nine months, she said, the only complaint received from neighbors around the McLean home involved garbage on the lawn after a stray dog chewed open a bag of trash. The garbage was immediately cleaned up by home residents, she said.
In addition, Margery J. Donnelly, past chairwoman of the women's commission, pointed out the most of the husbands are not dangerous to anyone except their wives.
Ideally, the shelter would like to relocate to a home set off from its neighbors, Hill said. The house should be able to accommodate nine people. The center can pay up to $600 per month in country funds on rent.
The women's commission and the northwest mental health center are looking for a new shelter in the northwest third of the county which includes the Dranesville and Centreville political districts. A site in that area is desirable, they say, because it contains large, commercial centers and would be in the Fairfax-Falls Church Mental Health Services Board's governing area, several officials said. But a site in the southern part of the county would also be acceptable, they added.
The primary purpose of the shelter, Ochaman said, is to help a battered woman decide what she wants to do once she has made the decision to leave her husband. The shelter's counselors refer the women to social services and legal and medical personnel who are available to help them.
Mim Keo, a counselor at the shelter, gave an example of how the shelter provides help. She cited the case of one woman, 25, with two children, ages 2 and 5, who called the shelter from a local hospital where she had just been treated for a black eye and a possible broken leg.
In the call to the shelter, she said she wanted to file for divorce and was afraid to return home. She had her children with her.
Keo sent a cab to the hospital to pick her up. The next morning, a counselor explained how to issue a warrant for assault against the husband, how to find the county magistrate to file for divorce, how to hire a lawyer and how to seek temporary custody of her children and obtain child support payments.
The woman followed all the procedures and ten days later the court set a hearing on the child custody request and the assault warrant. The husband was required to post a $250 bond to assure his return for later hearings and was told by the judge not to beat his wife.
During the 10-day wait for the hearing, the woman contacted area social service agencies, who helped her find a temporary apartment. She also began searching for a job. The day after the hearing, she and her children moved out of the shelter, even though they could have stayed two weeks.
Her case is typical, Kim said. Most of the women using the shelter come from middle-income families. Many are foreign born; many have been beaten for years, but accepted it because they had seen their mothers beatean as children and thought it was a normal part of marriage, Kim said.