St. Mary's and Calvert counties reported a decrease in domestic violence crimes, while Charles County saw a surge of such incidents in the most recent statistics from the Maryland State Police.

St. Mary's had 248 reports of domestic violence in 1997, a 35 percent drop from the 381 incidents reported the previous year. Calvert's incidents totaled 287 in 1997, down 5 percent from 302 incidents in 1996. Charles, meanwhile, had a 22 percent increase in domestic violence crimes -- 744 incidents in 1997 compared with 612 a year earlier. State police released the 1997 figures last month.

Local law enforcement officials, as well as social workers who deal with victims of domestic violence, said a heightened awareness about these crimes explains the fluctuations -- both up and down -- in the Southern Maryland figures.

"This is good news. I thought we were making progress," said Kathy O'Brien, executive director of Walden/Sierra Inc., which coordinates many of the domestic violence programs in St. Mary's.

O'Brien said her organization's goal is to prevent such incidents and that it has worked closely with the sheriff's office and other social service agencies to educate the community about domestic violence. She said the group also helps victims find counseling and housing services.

"There's a concerted effort at outreach in the community," O'Brien said. "We're really trying to make sure that the word is out that there is assistance available in our community." O'Brien said their educational efforts have included newspaper and billboard advertising and workshops in the schools.

"There are a lot of services out here that the victims don't know about. That's our purpose here -- to let them know," added Kathy Dassing, domestic violence coordinator for the St. Mary's sheriff's office. The St. Mary's office, like other local police departments, has officers who are devoted exclusively to domestic violence issues.

Calvert and Charles officials also are focusing on education.

Annette Gilbert-Jackson, director of Charles County's Center for Abused Persons, said her organization's activities include holding a candlelight vigil for domestic violence victims every April, offering a program on dating violence in county high schools and providing special training for county police officers.

Gilbert-Jackson said that such efforts can prevent domestic violence situations and encourage victims to report more of the incidents that do occur. "Women know more about it. . . . They're prosecuting more," she said.

Pat Pease, director of the abused persons program at the Calvert County Health Department, offered another explanation for the variances in the Southern Maryland numbers. She said a change in state law a few years ago made it easier for victims to obtain long-term court orders to keep their abusers away from them. "People have turned to that as their recourse," she said of the so-called protective orders.

A 1994 state law requires all local law enforcement agencies to submit copies of their police reports involving domestic violence to the Maryland State Police. The state police define a domestic violence incident as any crime occurring between: married couples who are living together or are estranged; and unmarried couples, heterosexual or same-sex, who are living together or have lived together in an intimate relationship.

Statewide, there were 25,792 reported domestic violence crimes in 1997, a 3 percent increase from the 24,940 incidents reported the previous year. Sunday had more incidents reported than any other day, and arguments over purported infidelity were the most common circumstances surrounding the offenses. Wives, especially those ages 25 to 44, were the most frequent victims.

Domestic Violence in Southern Maryland

Local law enforcement agencies throughout the state report domestic violence incidents to the Maryland State Police, which issues an annual report summarizing the statistics. Maryland law defines a domestic violence incident as one involving "An individual who has received deliberate physical injury or is in fear or imminent deliberate physical injury from a current or former spouse or a current or former cohabitant." The definition applies to both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Here are the numbers of reported cases in Southern Maryland:

County 1994 1995 1996 1997 % Change from '96

Calvert 180 286 302 287 -5.0%

Charles 419 634 612 744 +21.6%

St. Mary's 269 282 381 246 -34.9%

Source: Maryland State Police, Uniform Crime Reporting Section