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Joe Surkiewicz: In Southern Maryland, doing more with less

Joe Surkiewicz//Special to the Daily Record//July 31, 2014

Joe Surkiewicz: In Southern Maryland, doing more with less

By Joe Surkiewicz

//Special to the Daily Record

//July 31, 2014

For victims of domestic violence in Southern Maryland, it’s a lifeline. The Southern Maryland Center for Family Advocacy helps and supports victims, almost exclusively women, many of whom have been repeatedly assaulted, raped and emotionally abused by their partners.

One young mother had been stabbed repeatedly by her husband and left for dead — at least the fourth attack by him. After she contacted the center, it secured a protective order and represented her when her husband appealed the order.

But it didn’t stop there: the center helped in other aspects of her life, like arranging charitable donations at Christmas, supporting her family as the criminal case proceeded, and dealing with the repeated violations of the protective order.

The outcome? The abuser is behind bars for decades, with guarantees from the state and the center’s attorneys that he will not have contact with his wife and children for at least 10 years.

“This case illustrates how the center aids clients throughout not just the protective order process, but with follow-up legal issues, criminal court, and collateral issues related to their safety and the safety of their children,” said Laura Joyce, the center’s executive director.

Since the recession hit Southern Maryland in 2009, Joyce said, the center’s caseload has increased by 40 percent.

“We’re experiencing the drip, drip, drip of the recession since its peak,” she said. “It’s trickle-down. People use up their reserves and then need our services. Domestic violence is exacerbated by poverty and contributes to poverty.”

It happens when a family that is already marginalized splits up and leaves a two-income situation.

“We see victims from every income level,” Joyce said. “People with disposable income sometimes go to a private attorney, but we’re the specialists. If you’re going to have heart surgery, you want to go to the doctor who does it five times a day, right?”

The center’s expertise is in protective orders — appeals, violations, and modifications — and it keeps its three lawyers busy.

“We also have court advocates at the three District Courts in Southern Maryland — St. Mary’s, Charles and Calvert counties,” Joyce said. “They help people fill out protective order forms and file protective order petitions, and accompany them to court. They do safety planning, and very intensive referral and follow through with the sheriffs, state’s attorneys, counseling programs, shelters and the Department of Social Services.”

While the center continues in its mission to help an increasing number of DV victims, financial support is not keeping pace.

“We are handling 40 percent more cases and our staff is down from 14 to nine,” Joyce said. “That’s nearly a 50 percent decrease. It’s a combination of budget cuts, and the fact that no one funds increases in the cost of doing business — rent, phone, utilities, etc.

“Nonprofits are notoriously underfunded because of the mentality that says we’re not supposed to care about getting paid a living wage and that we’ll figure out how to keep the staff intact,” she continued. “But we can’t.”

In fact, some of the center’s staff qualify for public benefits.

“We’ve cut about as much as we can,” she said. “Several of my employees are on food stamps, skilled people with college degrees. We pay $11 an hour. I’m trying to keep us afloat.”

While the caseloads and finances are bad, it’s not grim, she added.

“We’re not in danger of closing. It’s a cash-flow problem,” Joyce said. “It’s always a balancing act. Every bit of funding we get is reimbursement for our services, so we have to have reserves. But they’re all gone. It’s anywhere from 14 to 22 weeks after the money is spent that we get reimbursed.

“If we had a cushion of $100,000, our problems would be solved and I’d be able to sleep at night again,” she added. “We do fundraising, of course, and ask for money from donors. But it’s not enough.”

More and stable funding for the center would have huge payoffs for Southern Maryland.

“We’re helping people move out of poverty and out of domestic violence situations,” Joyce said. “And we’re helping the children in the families we help. They’re the ultimate victims. Without intervention, 80 percent of them will grow up to be future victims or abusers.

“We’re making a long-term, cumulative difference by intervening,” Joyce said. “It’s incredibly impactful work, changing so many lives going into the future.”

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is [email protected]


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