Harford County victims of domestic violence and sexual assault will be provided immediate refuge from potentially lethal situations when a new shelter opens next fall.
Officials of the Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center Inc. unveiled architectural drawings Wednesday for the conversion of a county-owned building in Bel Air into a shelter for battered women and children.
The group also launched a yearlong drive to secure contributions to complete renovation of the shelter and raise money to finance its operating costs.
"We are in desperate need of a shelter," said Madeleine Grant, SARC's executive director. "Harford is one of just four Maryland counties that does not have a shelter for abused women."
SARC is the only resource in the county dedicated solely to helping victims of domestic violence. The center provides crisis intervention and counseling; accompaniment to hospitals and courts; legal advocacy; educational support groups for victims, children and abusers; and referrals for appropriate help from other agencies.
The nonprofit organization operates out of a small clapboard cottage on East Gordon Street in Bel Air.
Until the new shelter opens, victims in need of immediate refuge are, and will be, temporarily placed in hotels or shelters in other counties.
"We try to provide everything the victim needs to stay safe," said Patricia L. Aaserude, president of SARC's board of directors. "But that's not enough. A few days in a hotel is not enough time for them to put their lives back together. They need a safe house where they can catch their breath and decide what they are going to do with their lives."
Once the centrally located building in Bel Air is converted into a shelter, it will provide refuge for eight women and their children. The clients and their children will be able to stay at the shelter for up to eight weeks. The new facility also will have conference rooms for group meetings and rooms for individual counseling sessions. It is being designed by Frederick Ward Associates Inc. of Bel Air.
SARC has received a $600,000 state bond for the renovation of the county-owned building. The Harford County government has promised to provide architectural work and other services. The resource center is responsible for securing operating funds.
The center is partially financed by state and county money, federal grants and the United Way, but it also depends heavily on community contributions.
SARC estimates it will need about $200,000 annually to hire more staff and operate the shelter.
Mrs. Grant noted that domestic violence is a widespread problem that affects people of all races, religions and economic lifestyles.
Nationally, FBI statistics show, a spouse is beaten every 15 seconds. About 95 percent of the victims are women.
"Our caseloads are rising dramatically, but our staff has stayed the same," said Ms. Grant. "Only two counselors handle the entire load. They are overwhelmed."
She estimates that the center will aid about 600 new clients this year and that volunteers will receive more than 2,000 calls on SARC's 24-hour Helpline. In comparison, the small staff counseled about 170 clients in 1987. The numbers of clients have risen steadily since then, to nearly 400 in 1991 and 1992. The number jumped to nearly 600 last year.
"We're not Joan of Arc. We can't see that many people and actually help them," said Noreen Anderson, a therapist and coordinator of SARC's domestic-violence program.
"We need money; we need more staff, now," Ms. Anderson pleaded in a fund-raising appeal to community members who attended Wednesday's breakfast meeting.
Under the motto, "Let's Build A House for SARC -- Together," the center's fund-raising committee has started a chain-letter campaign asking business people to secure contributions for SARC.
The group hopes to raise $500,000 within a year. Community organizations and individuals will be able to adopt rooms in the shelter and furnish and decorate them.
"Just like an old-fashioned barn- raising, let's all get together and build a house for SARC," said Sandra R. Wallis, vice president of SARC's board of directors. "And in one year, we'll celebrate with a barn dance."