Ten days before Melissa Latson was kidnapped and held hostage, she and her boyfriend had gotten into a fight at home, where she ended up passing out with a bruise on her face.
Seeking safety, she took her children and briefly stayed at a friend’s house.
It wasn’t the first time she had to whisk the children away.
Latson wanted to flee her relationship for good with each bruise, black eye and bloody nose that had come in the months before. But the single mother was on a limited income and couldn’t leave the Southeast Washington apartment where she lived with her three children.
“I had stayed in my apartment knowing he knew where I was,” Latson said. “I suffered in my own home.”
Domestic violence victims often find themselves enduring abusive relationships because they, like Latson years ago, cannot escape. But a new grant in Prince George’s County, Md., expands housing assistance to those attempting to get away.
In the past, women seeking shelter or housing aid in Prince George’s had to have a protective order filed with the court before they could access funding. The $1.5 million grant is the first time money is available to those seeking refuge before they have filed a protective order.
The grant aims to help victims get to a safe place and stabilize their lives as they navigate the criminal justice system, said Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks, whose office recently secured the funding from the state.
“We’re hoping to reach the large number of individuals that want to leave before something happens,” Alsobrooks said during a news conference announcing the availability of the grant dollars in October. “This funding is not designed to help after the crime has occurred.”
The funding, which can be accessed through the Prince George's County Family Justice Center, can cover three to six months' worth of housing expenditures with the option of being extended up to a year. The money can also help pay for therapy sessions or counseling for victims and their children, Alsobrooks said.
Carolyn White-Washington, head of a Prince George’s-based nonprofit group that empowers women to leave abusive relationships called Sisters4Sisters, said the county has needed such help for women for years.
White-Washington talked to one woman in October with four children who wound up living in her car because she couldn’t find a place to stay but needed to flee her abuser.
“I cannot emphasize how many women have stayed in abusive relationships because they had nowhere to go,” White-Washington said.
Latson stayed with her boyfriend for about eight years, turning to friends to take her in when tensions flared at home. But she never stayed with them for long, worried she might be imposing or putting them at risk if her boyfriend tracked her.
“I’d stay a night or two and then dread going back to my apartment. It was like torture,” Latson said.
After frequent visits to the local police station, but never pressing charges out of fear of reprisal, Latson’s abusive relationship ended two days after Christmas in 2005.
Less than two weeks after their fight, Latson’s boyfriend confronted her outside her office in McLean, Va., early in the morning.
“ ‘Holler and I will blow your brains out,’ ” Latson recalled him saying as he stole her truck and shoved her inside.
Latson happened to be on the phone with a police detective at the time, and when their conversation abruptly ended, police broadcast an alert that covered the region, she said.
Within a short time, officers spotted her truck before her boyfriend led police on a chase through the District. He crashed into other cars while fleeing and drove so fast at one point that Latson thought the truck would flip.
Her boyfriend eluded police crossing into Prince George's County, where Latson wound up at a stranger's apartment and was held hostage during a standoff with law enforcement. Helicopters flew overhead, news vans planted themselves outside and SWAT officers swarmed the building as negotiators attempted to engage with Latson's boyfriend.
“I couldn’t believe this was my life,” Latson, now 47, said. “I thought I was going to die.”
Six hours later, Latson’s boyfriend told her to put on her coat and walk out the door. He said he would follow behind.
“I thought he was going to shoot me in the back of my head,” Latson said.
Instead, he surrendered.
Police flanking the door on the left immediately grabbed her and police on the right took her boyfriend down and handcuffed him.
“‘Melissa, I love you,’ ” he told her at the police station that night.
Ten months later, a jury found Latson’s ex-boyfriend, Michael Troy Smallwood, guilty of one count of carjacking, a crime that carried the heaviest sentence of all the charges leveled against him in the kidnapping. Smallwood is serving a sentence in federal prison on an unrelated drug distribution conviction. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
“I think about what my life would be with that grant,” Latson said. “My kids would be in a safe space and all of this could have been avoided.”
Latson runs a nonprofit called Motivating Elegant Ladies that works with girls ages 10 to 17 to teach them about healthy relationships and the importance of developing self-confidence.
She encourages women who think they need help to apply for the grant in hopes of avoiding similar painful experiences.
“Please pray for the courage and strength to leave,” Latson said. “It will not get any better. It is only going to get worse.”
Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.