Calls to abuse hot lines and shelters are up

FORT WORTH -- Calls to SafeHaven of Tarrant County, where people seek refuge from dangerous relationships, increased 117 percent from 2007 to 2009.

But it's not just the number of calls that concern SafeHaven workers.

"We've had some instances of the abuser finding out that his victim is seeking our services and passed on veiled threats to our staff," President Mary Lee Hafley said.

The viciousness of some abusers' threats and their willingness to attack those trying to help abused women and families keep Hafley up at night, she said.

"I see a lot of people willing to step over a line that was seldom crossed before," Hafley said. "I think it really galvanizes the staff and makes them realize how necessary their training is. For my director of HR, it scares her to death."

The economy cannot explain all the increase, nor can it explain the ferocity of attacks some women are experiencing, Hafley said. Finances and stress are compounding factors in abusive relationships and may shorten the cycle of domestic violence but don't fully account for the escalation.

It is taking place statewide, workers at domestic abuse shelters said.

"Some of our shelters saw a 100 percent jump from 2008," said Kristen Beaman, spokeswoman for The Allstate Foundation, which researches domestic violence trends. "They had a 93 percent jump last year, and this year they had a 29 percent increase through September '09."

Many of these shelters just staggered through what some call "the mean season" for domestic violence. At SafeHaven, calls for help increased 91 percent in January and February from the same months in 2007.

"Right after New Year's, statewide, 80 percent of the programs we surveyed expected a jump," said Heather Bellino, Texas Advocacy Project spokeswoman.

"A lot of survivors want to keep families together during the holidays. But after that, the bills come due, and the tensions tend to mount."

SafeHaven has instituted new ways to deal with the new realities, Hafley said.

"In the last year, we started doing lethality assessments," she said. "We now have a tool that helps us numerically score how likely it is that this person is in danger of losing their lives. It's a very useful tool for our staff and our clients. It points out what could happen to them and their children."

Workers can give numerical value to behaviors exhibited by abusers, then use that score to quantify the likelihood that someone might die in a relationship, said Stephanie Storey, SafeHaven chief program officer. If the abuser has a history of threatening the victim and her children with weapons, uses drugs or alcohol or has threatened to kill the victim, the potential for death or injury increases, Storey said.

"The more risk factors that are present, the more lethal the situation," Storey said. The organization is also reaching out to new partners and asking that men speak out more against abuse, Hafley said. High school coaches and athletes should mentor younger junior high school students in this area and communicate the right messages about women.

Men need to step up and respond when they see other men treating women badly, Hafley said.

"We think we have made great strides for women's rights, and then you run against this type of abuse and you think, 'Oh, my God, what makes someone think about doing this to a person?'" she said. "It's a sense of entitlement that some people have. Even though they would never publicly say that women are property, their actions say something totally different."

Some localities are turning the tables on the abusers. Connecticut announced this month that it was awarded $140,000 in federal stimulus funding to begin a pilot program requiring some abusers to wear GPS devices. They alert victims and police when tormentors come too close.

Cindy Southworth, development and innovation vice president at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said that the devices are helpful but that without resources to augment the technology, victims are no safer and become filled with false hope. If police and others buy into the program, however, lives can be saved, she said.

"This is not an invisible shield, but it does give police an early warning," Southworth said.

MITCH MITCHELL, 817-390-7752