County office, law enforcement team up to protect abuse victims

The Baltimore Sun

The Carroll County office of Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland has officially teamed up with all the county's law enforcement agencies - the state police, the municipal departments and the sheriff's office - to match crisis workers with police officers to respond to domestic violence incidents through the First Step program.

The expanded partnership will help Family and Children's Services bring its programs to more victims and publicize the county's more than two-year-old protective shelter, said Connie Sgarlata, director of the non-profit agency's Westminster office.

After a few more years of operating the current three-bedroom safe house shelter, Sgarlata said she hopes statistics will make the case for a larger facility.

"Eight [beds] is just too small: it's very limiting," Sgarlata said of the current safe house, in an undisclosed location to protect the victims. "Having something larger is necessary, but how large is the question. Budgets are tight."

Family and Children's Services has partnered with the Westminster Police Department for about 10 years, but the Carroll County Sheriff's Office just joined the program this spring. The state police barracks in Westminster came on board with First Step during the past year.

The First Step program assigns a case worker to visit a domestic violence victim with a police officer within 48 hours after authorities first respond to the incident.

Suzanne Savage, Family and Children's Services clinical supervisor in Carroll, said the victims are then offered counseling and potential placement in the county's safe house. It's a way to reach victims who would not otherwise seek help.

"[The police's] goal is to reduce recidivism so their officers are not going to the same houses over and over again, and our goal is to make people safer," Savage said. "We're both working toward the same end."

The long-standing partnership with Westminster has reduced the number of repeat domestic violence calls to the city police, Sgarlata said.

But with the state police fielding 50 to 60 domestic violence calls per month, Sgarlata said more funding for First Step is necessary. Family and Children's Services receives a $65,000 annual grant to fund one full-time and a part-time crisis worker for the First Step program, Sgarlata said.

First Step serves more than twice as many victims as it did three years ago. The program assisted 516 people in 2006, she said.

Detective Sgt. Chuck Moore of the Westminster barracks said the program is reducing the strain on the state police. His department had a domestic violence prevention grant, but since that ran out, "troopers just don't have the time to be that thorough," he said.

Carroll was the only Baltimore metropolitan county to lack a domestic violence shelter before its safe house opened in January 2005, officials said. The state Department of Human Resources awarded the county an $885,000 grant for three years of operational costs.

The county commissioners approved last week an application for a $300,000 grant to cover the shelter's operating costs, a 24-hour domestic violence hotline and related counseling services for fiscal year 2008.

After the fiscal year, which begins July 1, the county will reapply for a three-year operating grant, corresponding to the grant cycles already in effect in other jurisdictions, Sgarlata said.

Overnight stays have increased since the safe house opened, according to county statistics. Before the shelter, victims were often put up in hotels.

"A lot of people are unwilling to take the hotel shelter because the security is questionable," said county grants manager Colleen Baumgartner.

Some 2,117 bed nights were provided to victims in fiscal year 2006, up from 1,067 in 2005. But between December 2006 and April 2007, the number of victims staying at the shelter declined. That could be due to fewer women with children staying there, county officials said.

During the November through December holiday season, families may also temporarily put aside their problems, Sgarlata said. The shelter's numbers tend to go up again in May, as they have this year, she said.

When the three-bedroom shelter fills up, Family and Children's Services has to house victims in alternate locations, Sgarlata said. She said it's difficult to accommodate a family of five, for example. Residents can stay at the shelter for up to two months, with extensions for extenuating services.

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