Heartly House is Frederick County’s only program that provides comprehensive services to victims of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault. Services include emergency shelter, individual counseling, group counseling, an abuser intervention program, and a 24-hour hotline, which includes crisis and emergency counseling.
And, last but not least, Heartly House offers legal services, like representation for orders of protection and in family law matters such as custody and divorce.
Heartly House’s staff also provides criminal accompaniment for victims when their abuser is charged with a crime.
“Frequently, crime victims are unfamiliar with the court system and don’t have an attorney to help them,” said Blaine A. Hoffmann, the director of legal services at Heartly House. “So our advocates are there to make sure victims have a voice with the state’s attorney and to make them comfortable with the court process.”
Take, for example, a woman in her 60s who had been married to a very controlling and abusive man for more than 40 years.
“He kicked her son out of the house when he was 15 and wouldn’t let his wife have contact with him,” Hoffmann said about the former client. “He went with her whenever she went out. She hadn’t shopped alone for over a decade. She wasn’t allowed to go to family functions or talk to her grandson on the phone, who was overseas in the military.”
One night, her adult daughter sneaked her out of the house and took her mother home with her. “Her husband went to the daughter’s house and called the police to demand that she be returned to him,” Hoffmann said. “The police refused and advised her to file for a protective order and to call Heartly House.”
Hoffmann represented her for the protective order. “Now, she’s living with her daughter and got to see her son for the first time in over 20 years,” he said. “She got to see her grandchildren for the first time. She’s now getting a divorce and feels like she has her life back.”
Another client, a 14-year-old girl, was held captive for more than 12 hours by a 19-year-old man. She was physically assaulted and raped, and the police referred her parents to Heartly House.
“We represented the parents on behalf of the minor child for an order of protection,” Hoffmann recalled. “Then the 19-year-old filed a juvenile order of protection in retaliation. We defended and got it dismissed.”
Heartly House staff, which includes three victim advocates, went with the girl on all the interviews with the state’s attorney in the case against her abuser.
”She was very distrustful of men, except for me and her dad,” Hoffmann said. “We went with her on all the criminal hearings. The state’s attorney didn’t find there was enough evidence to purse the sexual assault. The family and the child received counseling. She is now finishing high school and trying to move on with her life.”
In fiscal year 2016 the legal staff appeared at 379 hearings—“and for half that year, it was only me,” said Hoffmann, who now has an additional attorney on staff. Of them, 213 of the appearances were for final protective orders.
The staff also represented clients in modifications of orders, shielding and rescinds. They also represented 30 people in divorce and custody cases. Including brief advice and legal counseling, Heartly House’s legal department served a total of 507 people during fiscal year 2016.
A disturbing trend is an increase in domestic violence mixed with problems of addiction and alcohol. “We also see where people aren’t getting proper mental health care – abusers who are off their medications,” Hoffmann added. “We’re also seeing many cases with post-traumatic stress disorder from military service.”
While the economy isn’t as bad as it was six or seven years ago, another economic trend is affecting the rate of domestic violence.
“Affordable housing is a continuing issue,” Hoffmann said: “Housing is very expensive in Frederick County. Frequently, the victims are financially dependent on abusers, which limits their options, especially if there are children subject to a custody and visitation order.”
How does he cope?
“A sense of humor, good friends and family,” responded Hoffmann, who received the Benjamin L. Cardin Distinguished Service Award from the Maryland Legal Services Corp. earlier this month. “We talk a lot about self-care. The clients are always very grateful. I derive a lot of satisfaction from this work. I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s part of my identity.”
Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is [email protected].