A continuing fight against a secret pain

September 24, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

When a battered women's shelter was founded in Washington County almost 30 years ago, the hope was that lives might be saved - and psychological damage prevented - if women could escape homes that had become prisons with cruel jailers who were once loving husbands or boyfriends.

But I was surprised this week when Vicki Sadehvandi, executive director of CASA Inc., (Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused), told me that CASA is now teaching abusers how to control their behavior - and how to get help with jobs, training and the like.

The latter help is limited to those already in CASA's abuser-intervention program. Fifteen are enrolled with the help of a Maryland state grant Sadehvandi said she hoped would be renewed in December.

Carol Bannon, coordinator of the Washington County Family Council, said she likes the approach.

"To me, personally, it shows that there's a second chance, that nobody's giving up on anybody," she said.


But if this makes it sound as if it's all sweetness and light locally, it isn't. That's why Bannon and Sadehvandi are talking about next month's push for more awareness about domestic viollence and how it affects families.

Like child abuse, domestic violence is learned behavior. If children see a parent being beaten, they might conclude that this is normal behavior and could someday become abusers - or victims - themselves.

In 2005, the Family Violence Council logged 1,598 referrals, which led to 468 arrests and 358 cases closed.

In more than a third of those cases, alcohol was involved and almost half the time, children were present during the incidents.

Sadehvandi, who has been CASA's director since 1977 when she was the only employee with just a desk and a single telephone, said that although today's abusers tend to be more violent and to threaten victims with weapons, the county's coordinated approach helps a great deal.

Police, judges and government officials in general are more sensitive to the problems now and meet together regularly, she said. Abusers know that a lot of communication takes place - communication that makes it more likely that if they violate probation or court orders, they will go to jail, she said.

According to Bannon, "we've tried to coordinate services and streamline our approach so that no one falls through the cracks. We want to let the community know that CASA is here to help and that we want to hold the offenders accountable," she said.

One of the tools police now use to keep victims safe is called the "domestic violence lethality screen," Sadehvandi said.

Officers who arrive on the scene of an incident ask the victim a series of questions, she said.

These include questions such as "Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?" and "Has he/she threatened to kill you or your children?"

If the victim answers "yes" to either one of those, Sadehvandi said the officer immediately calls a counselor and attempts to get the victim to have a conversation about what happened and what the options are.

She credits many local officials, including Col. Doug Mullendore of the Washington County Sheriff's Department and Circuit Court Judge M. Kenneth Long for their help in making such systems work.

For example, she said, as state's attorney Judge Long championed the idea that anger management and abuser-intervention courses are not the same thing, but different approaches to different problems.

She also credits the United Way (CASA is a member agency) for providing the visibility and access to those who contribute to the annual campaign.

CASA Inc. was an agency that did not get off the ground easily. Although Herald-Mail reporter Pat King did an acclaimed series on domestic abuse called "The Battling Couples," the first attempt to form CASA floundered.

But after a local woman was killed by her estranged husband, Patricia Cushwa, Diane Weaver and others got it going. From a single desk and onephone, the agency now has offices with counselors and an attorney and its own shelter for victims.

To remember the victims and to call attention to the need that still exists, a candlelight vigil will be held Thursday, Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. on the southeast corner of Hagerstown's Public Square.

I remember the waitress who died so many years ago. Many a day she served us reporters lunch. What we can't forget is that there others out there that we will never meet, who need to know they're not alone and that help is available.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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