The tragic turn of events for Forward Step, the county's only shelter for abused women and their children, continued last week when the County Council upheld a zoning examiner's opinion that in accepting male boarders, the center is in violation of its zoning.

Forward Step's executive director, the Rev. J. William McNally, said he'll appeal the decision to Circuit Court, but I would hope that sane minds intervene before that happens.

The council acted properly in upholding the decision.

Now it'stime to set aside the inside political and power struggles that haveshipwrecked this once-great shelter. And McNally -- or the shelter'sboard of directors -- needs to get a grip on the retired minister's bullheadedness toward government if a solution is to be found that will bring this center back on course.

We need a solution that will benefit those hurt most by the turn of events -- battered and abused women in desperate need of a place of shelter and caring.

That solution is either to get Forward Step serving battered women again withthe excellent program it once provided or to create another shelter that offers long-term housing and counseling. The latter seems unlikely, considering start-up costs.

Due to financial constraints brought on by county grant cuts, Forward Step is sheltering just two women.

It's been able to make ends meet by offering housing and meals to veterans referred by the Perry Point VA hospital. Perry Point pays Forward Step for housing the male vets. But these 10 vets have put Forward Step in violation of a zoning requirement it agreed to when it opened -- that the center would be only for women and their children.

In its heyday just a few years ago, Forward Step housed an average of 20 women and children at a time. The women stayed an average of 28 days, as compared with the three or four days they can get now in a motel with county emergency assistance. Some women were allowed to stay longer at Forward Step, if circumstances required.

All were given counseling to help them come to grips with the emotional upheaval of being abused and leaving their abuser, and were offered job counseling so they could have a shot at landing work.

According to Donna deBussy, executive director of the the Sexual Assault/Spouse AbuseResource Center, which counsels abused women and runs a 24-hour hot line, there is a critical need for a shelter in the county that provides more than just emergency housing on a very temporary basis to women who are in the desperate trap of living with an abuser.

SARC isattempting to put together money and plans to open such a shelter, but that might not happen for one or two years.

That's too long forthese women to find a place where they can begin to unravel from their torment and establish financial independence.

Without good counseling and some financial resources, the odds of a woman returning toher abuser are very high -- 80 percent, says deBussy.

The human toll is too high to let a statistic like that just dangle. With proper, good-faith intervention from the new county executive and her administration, I bet Forward Step could be put back on track, serving women in need and the county, given strong assurances that it would abide by the audit requirement or face public disgrace.

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