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Focus on Domestic Violence


Domestic violence is receiving unprecedented national focus this summer because of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. In Maryland, as in other states, the Simpson case and its attendant publicity present a golden opportunity for examining laws and procedures that could help reduce the incidence and severity of domestic assaults.

Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services, calls it "domestic terrorism," an accurate description when one considers the injuries often overlooked by police or dismissed by courts would bring stiff penalties if inflicted on a stranger.

It is doubly terrifying to realize that the perpetrator knows where to find his victim -- and, even if arrested, is often soon free to do so again. Women who try to leave home or break off the relationship can pay for their independence with their lives. Last September, employees at PHH FleetAmerica in Hunt Valley watched in horror as Preston Robert Fuller killed his former girl friend, Dena Lawanda Pettaway, with two shots to the head. She was pregnant at the time.

Police estimate that about 10 percent of Baltimore's homicides are directly related to domestic violence. Nationally, violent crime reports show that women are as likely to be victimized by an intimate as by a stranger, while men face a greater danger from strangers than from intimate friends or relatives. Staff members at the House of Ruth, a shelter for battered women in Baltimore City, estimate that in Baltimore alone there are about 100 abusive husbands or boyfriends who should be watched closely by police because their potential for violence could be lethal.

Short of death, about 1 million women in the U.S. receive emergency medical treatment each year for abuse-related injuries. In at least half the homes where adults resort to violence, children are present and often witness the brutality. Research suggests a link between witnessing domestic violence as a child and committing it as an adult.

Does this cycle have to continue? Some states and local jurisdictions have made concerted efforts to reduce the frequency and severity of domestic violence. Maryland has taken important steps in the past couple of years, but there is a long way to go. The biggest challenge is avoiding the temptation for quick fix that could end up doing as much harm as good. For example, mandatory arrest of a batterer can be an effective policy -- if the jails and court system can handle increased numbers of defendants. But if a batterer is booked and released on his own recognizance, his victim may be in even more danger should he seek revenge.

There is no single solution to domestic violence, but there are a number of ways to strengthen laws, procedures and training that can make a significant difference. In the coming days, The Sun will pinpoint some of these areas.

Tomorrow: Civil Protective Orders

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