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Joe Surkiewicz: Helping victims in prosperous Howard County

Howard County has an image problem: It’s too affluent — not a place most people associate with rape and domestic violence.

And that’s a drawback for HopeWorks, a rape crisis and domestic violence center in Columbia.

“The fact that Howard County is prosperous presents a difficult challenge to us,” said Jennifer Pollitt Hill, HopeWorks’ executive director. “People are more reluctant to ask for help because of the county’s image. It also creates barriers if you leave an abuser. The cost of living here is higher. How do you survive on a single income?”

It’s not an abstract problem. Last year, HopeWorks served 3,500 clients with direct services such as housing, counseling, and an abuser intervention program.

About 500 of those clients received specific legal services from the program’s two full-time attorneys.

“We work mostly with peace and protective orders,” said legal director Sylvie Henry. “We also handle a few child abuse cases. We’re active in the criminal law area when the client is the victim, and we educate them about their rights. We have great relationships with the state’s attorney’s office and the police department. Our work doesn’t stop with the protective order.”

The legal program, funded in part by the Maryland Legal Services Corp., also provides consultations on family law cases and represents in a handful of them — mostly divorce and custody.

“They’re very complex cases and not likely to settle,” Henry said. “We refer a lot of cases out to the Howard County Bar and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service’s Judicare program.”

In addition to direct legal services (like helping 131 clients with peace and protective orders), HopeWorks provided brief legal information and referrals to 481 people last year.

That’s not the only way HopeWorks provides civil legal help to domestic violence victims. Its Volunteer Legal Advocacy Program staffs legal advocates at the Howard County district court for the daily peace and protective order docket.

“We let people know about HopeWorks and our services,” Henry said. “The staff is mostly volunteers who are specially trained lay folks. They not only provide information about our services, but also offer support and help. They connect the community to HopeWorks.”

Pollitt Hill called the volunteer program “a great net to cast. Folks may not know about us. It’s one thing to get a temporary order, but another thing to get the final protective order. It gives them a much better chance at achieving the final protective order if there’s an attorney at their side.”

And it’s even more important if the person is trying to escape from domestic violence.

“If it’s an emergency, there is a lot going on very quickly. For example, there might be a criminal situation and children involved,” Henry said. “An advocate or an attorney can guide them through the process.”

For women escaping an abuser, HopeWorks operates an emergency shelter that can house victims for up to 45 days.

“It’s staffed 24 hours a day and offers intensive case management,” Pollitt Hill said. “We also have two transitional homes where they can stay up to a year while they retrain for the work force, finish a degree, save funds for an apartment deposit, etc. It’s not staffed, but they get weekly caseworker visits.

“Folks come to us for all kinds of things,” she added. “They may be in danger and come to us for shelter. We meet them at court, or for counseling, or we meet at the hospital. We have all kinds of entry points. It’s what’s easiest for them. Some use every service or just a piece.”

In addition to direct client services, HopeWorks is in the community providing information on the prevention of sexual and domestic violence.

“We work with men and boys about how we define manhood and womanhood — showing them that being strong and powerful does not have to be tied to violence,” Pollitt Hill said. “We redefine it so that it supports a nonviolent expression of power.”

Another question that’s explored is the individual’s role as a bystander to sexual and domestic violence.

“We work with people after it happens, but what about the rest of us? You may hear things that are disturbing, but not directed at us — like someone is getting a thousand text messages a day,” Pollitt Hill said.

“We have a youth empowerment project that teaches what a healthy relationship is,” she added. “How do you intercede? What would you do if you saw a red flag? People don’t know how to respond if you are not the victim.”

Misconceptions and miracles

While HopeWorks has been around since 1978, the name is new.

“We were known as the Domestic Violence Center,” Pollitt Hill said. “Then we absorbed a rape crisis center and started offering those services. Our name was confusing to the community. Also, we wanted to focus on what we do — help people move past violence. HopeWorks better captures what we actually do day-to-day.”

Another drawback to Howard’s reputation as a prosperous county affects the project’s image.

“People also think we have lots of money,” Pollitt Hill said. “But these are labor-intensive services. We are not suffering from an overabundance of funding. We’re always in some degree of financial jeopardy.”

Another misconception: Working with victims of violence is depressing (or worse).

“If we can help a mother, it positively affects her kids, her workplace, the people she talks to,” Pollitt Hill said. “Violence just doesn’t affect the victim. There’s a ripple effect. And our work has a ripple effect, too.

“We love the work,” she added. “People will say to us, it sounds horrible. But we see people make miraculous changes in their lives. It’s joyous.”

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org.