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A Safe Place

Domestic abuse victims find help at city's women's shelter.

Last weekend, a woman called the city's domestic abuse hotline. She told the volunteers who were staffing the phone lines that her husband had been beating her. She was afraid for her safety, and didn't know what to do.

The voice on the hotline told the woman about the city's women's shelter. She could bring her children. The staff and volunteers at the shelter would help her present a legal case against her husband and start a new life. They would provide games and companionship for the children.

By Thursday afternoon, the woman and her children were living at the shelter.

"Our philosophy is never to turn anyone away," said Claire Dunn, the city's Domestic Violence Program coordinator. "The best part about this program is that we are able to help folks when they need it the most."

Dunn has been the coordinator of the program for the last 15 years.

THE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE program was created in 1980, at a time when society's attitudes toward domestic violence programs were evolving. At that time, Lenore Walker's "The Battered Woman" (originally published in 1979) was changing the way the criminal justice system approached domestic violence.

It was Walker who first identified the "Battered Woman's Syndrome," specialized research evidence documenting a cycle model of violence and "learned helplessness." Her book created a theoretical basis for addressing jurisprudence of handling violence that happened in the home, typically initiated against women by men.

In Alexandria, the city started renting an apartment in Rosemont. Women who were escaping abusive relationships could stay there, recovering and preparing for the next stage of their lives. But the apartment was soon cramped, and the Domestic Violence Program eventually relocated to a larger space at a secure location in the city.

The facility has 14 beds, and several pullout couches. Staff members and volunteers are always there. The building is in a secret location, secure from husbands or boyfriends who want to seek revenge. More than 95 percent of domestic violence cases are males attacking females, and the city's Domestic Violence Program also has the capacity to help male victims.

THE POLICE DEPARTMENT created a special unit to handle domestic violence cases in 1996. At that time, the unit was limited to a sergeant and a detective. With the police chief's approval, Sgt. Scott Gibson created the unit using a federal grant to combat domestic violence. He had been working on domestic violence cases since 1988, when he was assigned to be a liaison from the Police Department to the Domestic Violence Program.

"We started working the worst cases," recalled Gibson. "We couldn't do all of them, of course."

The city government approved Gibson's new unit, and City Hall eventually absorbed the cost of maintaining the grant when it expired two years later. Now, more federal grant money has been available for expanding the unit. In the past several years, the police department has increased staffing of the unit to include four detectives, an administrative assistant and a social worker.

"Many of the victims are caught in a cycle of violence," said Sgt. Harold Duquette, who has been in charge of the unit since October. "A lot of victims feel like they cannot leave."

THE CITY'S Domestic Violence Program celebrated its 25th anniversary last week at the Hilton next to the King Street Metro. Volunteers from the city's hotline, legal services and shelter congregated with members of the Commission for Women, Virginia legislators, City Councilmembers and city staff members. Several local restaurants donated food for the event.

The event put a spotlight on the efforts of the city program that has been working to reduce the problem of domestic violence for two generations in Alexandria.

"We are able to help folks when they need it the most," said Dunn, giving special praise to the program's 50 volunteers, who donate 300 to 400 hours a month. She also advocated for increasing prevention efforts in the city. "It's tough because nobody wants to fund prevention. It doesn't seem tangible."

The intangible nature of preventing domestic violence presents challenges to city leaders. The Domestic Violence Program has been working with schools and churches to educate children on domestic violence.

The city's Office on Women worked with the Domestic Violence Program to present curriculum to children in grades 5, 7 and 9. The interactive class — known as "Expect Respect" — combines lessons about domestic violence, sexual assaults and teen pregnancy.

"More often than not, after the program is over, we'll have a kid come up and say 'this is what happened to me,'" said Lisa Baker, director of the Office on Women.

The Domestic Violence Program has also reached out to the faith community, appealing to the Inter-Faith Alliance for help. Preventing domestic violence before it happens can be a matter of intervention by a priest, a reverend or a rabbi.

"I don't think that the faith community has been as supportive as they could be," said Burt Ransom, co-president of the Inter Faith Association. "They need to address this concern in their congregation in a serious way."

Prosecuting domestic violence cases was difficult 20 years ago. Now, with prosecutors and city staff working with the Alexandria Police Department's specialized unit, more victims are finding release from their cycles of violence.

"There are fewer domestic homicides now than when the unit started," said Gibson, adding that the number of protective orders issued last year was 11 times more than seven years ago. "I feel like we are making headway."