Pat Pugh, a caseworker for the Prince George's County state's attorney's office, rummages through a stack of folders and pulls a color photograph of a badly bruised woman. The woman had told Prince George's County court officials that she was injured by her husband during a fight.
Even though it was not the first time the woman was beaten by her husband, "This is one woman we had to convince to go forward with the charges," Pugh said. "Can you believe it?"
Pugh's job is to guide victims of domestic violence through the maze of the county's legal system. She and fellow caseworker Andrew Tanchel are assigned to the state's attorney's domestic violence unit in Hyattsville, which was launched last month. Through interviews with the victims and searches of court records, they compile information to help prosecutors decide how to handle cases.
"We'll know better now whether it's a single incident, a case of a wife who is only angry at her husband, a slapping incident or a true case of abuse," said Sheila Tillerson, the assistant state's attorney who developed the Prince George's unit.
"The victim gets the special attention that could make the difference between her pressing charges now or having the case come back into the court system as a murder instead of assault and battery."
Reported incidents of domestic violence in Prince George's increased by 152 percent between 1981, when 311 assaults were reported, and 1984, when 785 were reported, ranking Prince George's third among Maryland counties, according to a battered spouse report released in April by the Maryland General Assembly.
The increase led Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening to form a domestic task force, which, in turn, made recommendations that led to the formation of the state's attorney's special unit.
Before the unit formed in mid-September, domestic violence cases were handled like any other misdemeanor in the county's District Court system. The victim would appear before a court commissioner to ask that an arrest warrant or a summons be issued for the alleged abuser to appear in court. If the incident was not serious enough, the commissioner might refer the victim to a court mediator.
If a warrant or summons were issued, the case most likely would end up in court about six weeks later, court officials said. What happened between the victim and the accused abuser during those six weeks was anybody's guess, they said. Often the woman would begin to worry about the effect of the case on her future and that of her children and would decide not to testify, Pugh said, especially when the alleged abuser was the family's sole source of income.
By the time of the trial, Tillerson said, a prosecutor generally would have only a vaguely worded -- and sometimes illegible -- copy of the victim's original complaint. And the prosecutor's first contact with the victim might be only a few minutes before the case was called.
Things are changing. When the District Court commissioner issues a warrant or summons, the domestic violence unit is notified, usually the same day, said Gwendolyn Gooch, chief supervisor for the commissioners.
The unit sends a letter to the victim in a plain envelope within 48 hours, explaining the next step in the legal process and telling her that Pugh and Tanchel are available to answer questions.
Of 156 cases referred to the unit between Sept. 17 and Oct. 24, about 25 percent of the victims have responded to the letters, Pugh said. More respond to follow-up phone calls, Pugh said. When victims cannot make it to the Hyattsville office, Pugh and Tanchel try to meet them elsewhere.
Pugh said she explains to the victims that a jail term is not the only possible outcome of a trial. Weekends in jail, probation and keeping the charges open for up to a year are other possibilities, she said. In addition, State's Attorney Arthur (Bud) Marshall this year made counseling mandatory for first-time offenders.
Victims are told that, through a civil proceeding, they can obtain a court order that requires the abuser to stay away from home until a hearing before a district judge, Pugh said. However, that remedy is available only to married persons or members of the same family.
Operating funds for the program currently come from a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that provides state's attorneys with financial incentives for successful prosecution of food stamp fraud.
Funding programs for domestic violence has been a problem in Prince George's, said Jeffrey Wennar, chairman of the county's Domestic Violence Advisory Coordinating Council. That is a main reason, he said, why the county has not had as many services to offer domestic violence victims as other area jurisdictions.
Wennar noted that the District of Columbia and Montgomery County, for example, have alternative programs for first-time abusers and that Montgomery has a shelter for battered spouses and children that is entirely funded by the county, while the Prince George's shelter has some private funding. "The county is playing catch-up," Wennar said. "But what we're talking about is dollars. Obviously, it's not a lack of concern from the county executive or the County Council, or we wouldn't have this advisory committee."
Wennar said the county police seem to have solved the problem of financing their new family violence intervention unit, another idea that grew out of the county's domestic violence task force.
Nine detectives will be assigned to the new unit, which is scheduled to begin operating in January, said Robert Law, a county police spokesman. They will investigate abuse of children, the elderly and spouses and will also investigate missing persons.
A federal grant will allow the detectives to get extra training in domestic violence intervention, which in the past, Law said, has been the cause of many officers' injuries or deaths.