Firehouses as Shelter for Battered Wives?

NEARLY every neighborhood in New York City has a firehouse. So, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani would like to make the firehouses into ``safe havens'' where women or children can go to get away from domestic violence. ``You can go to the firehouse and get help,'' Mr. Giuliani said in a recent speech.

Turning firehouses into safe havens is just one of the mayor's plans to combat what he terms an ``epidemic'' of domestic violence.

On April 26, Giuliani appointed a Mayoral Commission to Combat Family Violence. Part of the commission's role is to try to get the New York Legislature to back three tougher family violence bills supported by the mayor and to promote greater communication among the city's myriad agencies.

``The first step in dealing with domestic violence is understanding the epidemiology, where and when it occurs,'' says Maria Mitchell, chairwoman of the commission and a special adviser to the mayor for health policy.

New York City Police Department (NYPD) officials estimate that they receive 300,000 domestic-violence phone calls per year. But the NYPD lists the calls as assaults, not as domestic violence. Now, the police are working with the city hospitals and doctors to get a handle on the scope of the problem. Ms. Mitchell, however, says the city has found that 74 percent of the children who come from violent homes end up committing some kind of violent crime. The city also estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the women in emergency rooms are victims of family violence. This costs the city $70 million a year.

As part of the new mayoral emphasis, the NYPD is training domestic-violence officers for each precinct and adding detectives dedicated to investigating family violence crimes. There will be domestic violence coordinators in each public hospital emergency room. The mayor's interest in domestic violence goes back to his campaign last year. A group of formerly battered women gave him a copy of a report on domestic violence called, ``Behind Closed Doors.'' They told Giuliani that the recommendations of the report were not being implemented. ``Every step of the way, the system fails these people,'' Mitchell says.

Among the changes Giuliani has made is instituting a ``must-arrest'' policy for every violent domestic incident. Police departments seldom make arrests for domestic violence. Other Giuliani changes include an attempt to put some teeth into ``orders of protection,'' which are court orders prohibiting an offender from visiting a victim of family violence. They are often ignored.

In addition, the mayor wants to treat wife beaters the same as drunk drivers. With each offense, the punishment becomes harsher. And, finally, the city wants to change the law so that victims have an easier time moving their cases from Family Court to Criminal Court.

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