Help for Domestic Violence Victims In Prince George's

Tracey Gold Bennett | 10/12/2011, 2 p.m.

Last year, 516 Temporary Peace Orders (TPO) were granted in Prince George's County, making it one of the highest locales in Maryland for domestic violence complaints. Overall, 2,636 TPOs were granted in the state in 2010.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and new laws surrounding the issue were passed on Oct. 1. In many instances, they stiffen the penalty for people who violate peace orders and give judges the authority to extend peace orders for six months in applicable cases.

In the state of Maryland, domestic violence is defined as an act that causes serious bodily harm; places a person in fear of imminent serious bodily harm; any degree of assault -- including rape or attempted rape -- and incidences of stalking and false imprisonment.

The Family Crisis Center in Brentwood, Md., is a nonprofit that provides services and support to victims of domestic violence in Prince George's County. Sondra Jones, the center's assistant executive director, said it's important for victims to have a plan in place to leave their situation.

"I would [apprise them] to call our hotline as well as to have a safety plan in place," Jones said. "They'll need important documents such as Social Security cards, driver's license and passports. If they have kids, they'll need immunization and school records," Jones continued. "It's also important that they have some money. Put aside a dollar or five dollars -- drop some change in a bowl to create savings."

While it doesn't cost anything to seek refuge at the center's domestic violence shelter, people who call the hotline or visit the administrative offices will be asked questions to determine their eligibility.

For the safety and anonymity of its residents, the shelter is in an undisclosed location.

"We meet people at a separate location and take them to the shelter. If they can get to us, we provide support resources for victims and their families," Jones said. "It costs $1,080 each day (staff and utility bills) per person to continue the shelter's upkeep. We are short-staffed and need more funding, but we continue to provide services 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Each year, an estimated 1.3 million women are victims of domestic violence, but the abuser is not always a man, said Queen Afi Gaston, a self-described reformed abuser, who operates the nonprofit Domestic Violence Wears Many Tags (DVWMT).

"I would be the abuser towards men. If someone hit you, you hit them back," Gaston said. "I was raised that way, and what I learned from my parents verbal abuse, went into my own household and into my relationships and children's lives."

Founded in 2009, DVWMT is dedicated to restoring and preserving a stable family environment through services, advocacy and education. Through her organization and an Internet radio talk show, Gaston educates people on the dangers of domestic abuse. But she hit rock bottom before she broke the cycle in her own life.

"Through rock bottoms I learned this is not right. What I was doing to my children really tore me up inside," Gaston said. My daughter, who is 15 years old, suffered the most verbal abuse. She would get spankings , but in my family the abuse was mostly verbal."