A shelter for battered women, the first to be organized in Prince George's County in three years, was dedicated Saturday in Brentwood in a former county school building turned multiservice center. It is expected to open in several weeks.
Established by a nonprofit group, the Family Crisis Center will have room for 28 women and children.
The county's Commission for Women estimates more than 5,000 women a year in Prince George's are victims of domestic violence. Commission director Susan Helfrich said domestic crises led to the deaths of 22 women, men and children in the county last year.
Assisi, the county's first shelter, closed three years ago, after only two years of operation, amidst charges of financial improprieties. Since that closing, the Commission for Women has referred the 25 to 50 calls it has been getting each month to shelters in other counties and to the Department of Social Services' emergency shelter program. Once the new shelter opens, Helfrich said, she expects it to fill immediately.
The Family Crisis Center was initiated in 1981, largely by then-assistant sheriff and chairman of the Commission for Women James Hubbard. A private, nonprofit corporation was formed to set up a shelter.
The corporation was established by John Rhoads, a former county police chief and vice president of the county Chamber of Commerce, and Greg Sterger, president of the Optimist Club. Also involved are representatives of the Department of Social Services, the women's commission, the Board of Education, District Court and the Mental Health Association.
The corporation is renting shelter space from the county for $1 a year. A senior citizens multiservice center and a police substation also are in the building.
The shelter floor of the center is being renovated with $280,000 in community block grants from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department and the facility has been furnished largely through donations from citizens and some businesses. Still needed are typewriters and office equipment.
Mary Weisenburg, 54, will head the new project, the third shelter she has played a major role in managing. She directed a shelter in southern Illinois and was instrumental in starting another shelter while she was clinical services coordinator for nine counties in Illinois.
The shelter's nine part-time staff members and volunteers also will take calls around the clock on a hot line (864-9101).
Although the shelter is just for women and children, the center also will generate counseling programs for abusers at a separate location. Men who need housing will be referred to another agency.
No woman will be turned away for lack of money, but fees for those who can pay range up to $5.50 a night, depending upon income and the number of children.
The shelter will not admit women with severe mental disorders.
When a woman applies for shelter, she will have to sign a "personal" contract, which may require her to see a counselor, look for work or search for housing.
Although organized efforts to deal with domestic violence started about 15 years ago in California, Maryland did not get its bearings until 1980 with the formation of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.
Before 1980, only five programs existed in the state. Now there are 23, including 15 with housing provisions, said Marge Zimmerman, president of the network.
"Prince George's County is not behind in terms of community awareness, police involvement and legislation, but we are behind in shelter because of lack of funds," Helfrich added.
The Commission for Women has been training police officers for four years on how to handle domestic violence calls, and three recently enacted state laws cover the subject.
The first, in 1977, was sponsored by Del. Pauline H. Menes (D-Prince George's). The law required state police to gather statistics on spouse abuse assaults.
But two months ago, after Menes found that the statistics drastically varied with each county, she called a meeting of county police forces and found that each was gathering data differently.
As a result of that meeting, there probably will be a major increase in the number of calls categorized by police as domestic violence calls, Helfrich said.
In addition, a state law in 1980 allowed domestic violence victims to obtain a civil order of protection from a judge, similar to a restraining order. The order could require that the abuse cease, that family members get counseling, that the abuser move out of the house and that the victim get child custody.
A judge can approve any of these, but Zimmerman said few judges in Prince George's will order the abuser out of the house, although other counties are taking advantage of the order.
Last year, a law was passed that adds $15 to the cost of a marriage license, with all the extra revenue going to shelters for domestic violence victims. The increase in license fees to $25 is expected to add up to more than $85,000 for the Family Crisis Center.
Accurate statistics are difficult to gather because so few victims report the abuse, Helfrich said, with an estimated one in 10 battered women seeking help. Prince George's police currently report about 1,400 calls a year.