Every day for the last four years they have appeared at the doorstep of a Baltimore rowhouse that shelters battered women and asked to be taken in. Some have black eyes and cuts from beatings administered by irate husbands; others are simply scared.
But each day of late, at least five of these physically abused women, some with equally frightened children, will be turned away, simply because the House of Ruth shelter, with its 20 beds, cannot keep up with the demand.
The overload at the House of Ruth is occurring at other shelters throughout Maryland--and around the country--and points up what state officials say is an alarming increase in the incidents of wife beating that they believe have been fueled by the nation's difficult economic times.
"The thing that people fight about most when they are married is money," said Linda Heisner, director of the state division of Protective Services for Children and Families. "When you look at the economy there are more people under stress financially so there are going to be more arguments about money. It's the same sort of stress that is causing the increase in child abuse."
Heisner said it is difficult to document the increase through police statistics because many women will not report abuse.
Also, until recent years, law enforcement officials did not keep statistics about spouse abuse. Recent FBI statistics showed a slight decrease in the number of reported abuse cases, a decrease that Heisner said she believes is caused by the greater number of widely publicized alternatives to calling police, such as moving into shelters, calling hotlines or using new legal methods to force an aggressor out of the house.
"In significant numbers people don't call the police," she said. "It's at the shelters where you see the increase."
Officials in Virginia and the District of Columbia have also noted the increase in the number of women seeking shelter. "With all the kinds of social pressures that are on right now, people's ability to cope with stress is lower and it takes less to set people off," said Janice Moore, executive director of My Sister's Place in the District.
My Sister's Place provided beds for 262 women and children last year, about 90 more than the year before.
Nationally, similar trends have become apparent, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. One coalition officer, Barbara Shaw, who is based in Illinois, said last week that a battered women's shelter in Peoria, Ill., recently released statistics showing a dramatic increase in the demand for beds during periods of layoffs at the local plants.
In Maryland, Heisner said that almost all 11 public local shelters and privately run facilities have operated at full capacity during the last year and frequently have had to turn away eligible women.
The most dramatic increase in the number of women turned away occurred at Baltimore's House of Ruth, where 450 women were turned away in fiscal 1981, while 235 were turned away in the first three months of fiscal 1982, which began in July, according to director Bettye Williams.
If the same rate keeps up for the rest of the year, nearly 1,000 people--more than twice the number in 1981--will have been turned away.
At the same time, the number of requests by battered women for the shelter's legal service increased by two-thirds.
"I think the explanation is right there in Washington," Williams said. "One of the precipitating causes of abuse is stress, economic stress. But what are these people going to do? We try to get a bed for them somewhere else."
At the Montgomery County shelter in Bethesda, which with 26 beds is the largest in the state, the number of women using the facility in October was double the amount of past years, according to Cindy Anderson, director of the county's Abused Persons Program. October is normally a quiet month, Anderson said.
The number of women using the shelter has steadily increased since the center opened, with 125 using it in 1979 and nearly 200 in 1982.
Anderson attributes the increase to difficult times and greater publicity about the shelter.
In addition, Anderson said, contacts through the hotline are up 25 percent in the last year, from 2,263 in 1981 to about 2,840 last year.
Prince George's County has not had a battered women's shelter for two years, since Assisi closed in the wake of allegations of financial improprieties by its director. But a new facility is scheduled to open in the county in March, and shelter officials are seeking donations of supplies and equipment.