- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2005

If ever there was a tragic case to demonstrate the need for comprehensive community involvement in eradicating domestic violence, it’s the horrific burning of Yvette Cade.

Mrs. Cade, who suffered second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body when she was doused with gasoline, chased from her workplace and set ablaze Oct. 10, was abused by her assailant and by an overburdened criminal justice system, an insensitive judge and an uncaring community.

The 31-year-old mother’s pleas fell on deaf ears, and now she’ll wear the face of domestic violence for the rest of her life, should she survive. Yet her plight mirrors those of thousands of invisible victims, living in fear with nowhere to turn for help.

Three weeks after Prince George’s County Judge Richard A. Palumbo unfairly pounced on Mrs. Cade and summarily dismissed a protective order against her husband, Roger B. Hargrave, the judge finds himself offering incomprehensible excuses and the 33-year-old husband finds himself sitting in a jail cell awaiting trial on attempted murder charges.

All of this could have been avoided so easily.

How many times must victims be maimed or killed before we get it? Domestic violence is not one person’s problem; it is a community problem that must not be ignored or tolerated, says Nichelle Mitchem, executive director of My Sister’s Place in the District.

When adults are acting out their frustrations and problems through violence, how do you expect children to behave? When families are in crisis, communities are susceptible to crime and all manner of social disorder.

For instance, D.C. police report that the 22,000 calls to 911 in 2001 to report either sexual assault or domestic violence against women accounted for 50 percent of all violent crimes.

Where could Mrs. Cade and the countless other victims have sought refuge from their determined abusers even when they find the courage to finally get away?

Prince George’s County has only one domestic-violence shelter, a place that accommodates about 30 people. In the District, My Sister’s Place is one of two confidential shelters, and it has provided a safe haven for more than 5,000 domestic-violence victims for more than a quarter of a century.

But neither of these strapped shelters can handle the growing need. My Sister’s Place, for example, helps about 250 women and children a year, but an estimated 500 to 700 women annually seek refuge in the District alone.

Today, officials at My Sister’s Place will hold a breakfast fundraiser at Bank of America to begin its $3 million capital campaign, Sanctuary Plus, to build a larger, modern shelter to house fleeing families. The current house, built in 1912, can sleep only 24 persons, about half of the 50 emergency beds in the city. That accommodates about four families at a time.

The organization also is showcasing the WombWork Productions theater performance of “Domestic Violence: Shadows of Fear” at the University of the District of Columbia at 7 p.m. today. Tomorrow, it is co-sponsoring the “Rally to End Domestic Violence” at McPherson Square, 15th and K streets Northwest, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Both community-awareness events are free. On Sunday, they plan to distribute informational fliers at churches to highlight October as Domestic Violence Month.

Ms. Mitchem, a lawyer with more than 17 years of experience advocating for social justice for families in crisis, was hired as executive director of My Sister’s Place last month to replace Judith Bennett-Sattler, who died of lung cancer in March. If she had her way, her organization would be able to provide a comprehensive legal-service center for domestic violence and a batterer’s intervention program for male and female abusers.

“If we’re just providing [shelter] for women and children, then we’re treating the symptoms rather than the cause,” Ms. Mitchem said.

Thus, My Sister’s Place trains members of key institutions, including clergy, police and medical personnel, to identify and respond appropriately to women fleeing abuse.

Judge Palumbo is among those who should be required to take domestic-violence classes.

“What’s really troubling is the judge’s flippancy,” Ms. Mitchem said. “This speaks to the need to do judicial education with judges and police.” In light of the Cade case, Judge Palumbo, who gained a reputation for moving his backlogged court calendar swiftly, should be prohibited from handling domestic-violence cases. He should be relegated to items that are not life-threatening or prone to “clerical errors.” In fact, he should be removed from the bench, should further investigation reveal a long-standing pattern of neglecting, berating and marginalizing domestic-violence victims.

Although it is true that a judge’s protective order is only a piece of paper that will not deter the most violent and determined offenders, Mrs. Cade and other victims must know that someone, such as those at My Sister’s Place, has their backs.

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