CHAPEL HILL - A Chapel Hill mother’s slaying in front of Scroggs Elementary School has renewed calls for more domestic violence housing in Orange County.
Chahnaz Kebaier was fatally shot outside her children’s school May 25 by her estranged husband, Ali Cherfaoui, police said. The pair were involved in a years-long custody dispute over their two children, ages 4 and 5.
Orange County is the only county in the Triangle without a shelter for domestic violence victims. Those facing abuse can try to get in a neighboring county’s shelter, but they are often full. Victims, most often women, regularly choose between living with their abuser or being homeless, domestic violence workers say.
A shelter would not necessarily have prevented Kebaier’s death, which occurred while she was picking up her children from school, but it would fill a need, domestic violence workers say.
“It’s unfortunate in such a resource-rich community that there’s not more thought put to having a shelter put in Orange County, but there are lots of other resources,” said Beth Posner, a family attorney with Legal Aid, who represents poor families and victims of abuse in Orange, Alamance, Chatham, Lee, Moore and Richmond counties. She says demand for legal help with domestic violence is growing.
UNC Hospitals’ Beacon Child and Family Program, which serves patients, employees and families in the UNC Health Care system, saw a 28 percent increase in requests for its services from 2008 to 2011, said Diana Bass, program director. The program offers psychological and medical assessments, counseling and education.
“It’s huge, it’s absolutely huge,” Bass said. The prevalence of domestic violence nationwide is “really in epidemic proportions, especially since the recession started,” she said.
But shelters in other counties are struggling because funding is so tight for social services, said Ann Gerhardt, executive director for Compass Center for Women, now the name for The Women’s Center and Family Violence Prevention Center of Orange County, which merged in July. The group supports for people experiencing domestic abuse and offers legal and financial support programs.
The groups combined, in part, because of growing demand, Gerhardt said. Both served about 4,000 total teens and adults over the last year, and about 700 of those served were living with an abusive partner, Gerhardt said.
“We’ve seen our numbers climb dramatically,” she said. “Economic instability is a stressor for families. With economic instability, job loss, I know that also affects domestic violence numbers.”Finding more housing
Finding a way to house more people who experience domestic abuse is a primary goal of Compass Center in the upcoming fiscal year, Gerhardt said.
But that doesn’t mean the county needs to build its own shelter.
There are shelters for family-abuse victims in Wake, Durham, Alamance and Chatham counties, all of which each serve a total of about 800 clients a year, said Hudson Fuller, the former director of the Family Violence Prevention Center of Orange County, and now chief operating officer at Compass Center.
“It seems like a shelter is such an obvious solution, but it’s really not the obvious solution for Orange County,” he said. What is needed is more shelter services, and that’s different than a bricks and mortar shelter,” she said. “We need some more creative shelter for finding housing for women for families or men who are in a crisis, and that could be through the hotel system; it could be through apartment complexes. It can be done through a variety of mechanisms that are much less resource intensive.”
A big part of the solution is publicizing the services that do exist, domestic violence workers say.
“The shooting death in our community is a really stark, horrific example of domestic violence at the end of the spectrum,” said Gerhardt. “My hope is that this highlights and destigmatizes domestic violence victims and has them come for help, so we can all be a little bit more aware and prevent this from happening again.”
A county work group made up of residents and nonprofit leaders affirmed in 2010 that the county needs shelter services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
In a report for the Orange County Board of Commissioners in June 2010, the Domestic Violence Work Group of the Orange County Commission for Women proposed a tiered system for providing services with immediate, short-term services while longer-term projects were started.
The first tier would shelter victims through hotels in Orange County. There is at least one hotel in Orange County that will house abuse victims overnight for free, but Gerhardt said she hopes to get more businesses to offer free rooms.
The next tier would expand services through the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service’s women’s homeless shelter. The last tier would begin planning for a new shelter in Orange County, which would require a separate work group.
Many of the women in the IFC shelter are victims of domestic abuse, but the program is not specifically a domestic violence program, said Chris Moran, the IFC’s executive director. The IFC has advocated for a domestic violence shelter for many years, he said.
“No one wants to seem to move forward with that specific service,” he said.Legal challenges
Kebaier had a protective order against her estranged husband when he allegedly shot her.
Protective orders are a court order which limits where and when two individuals can see each other. Though the orders don’t always keep women safe, they’re still useful for those experiencing abuse, said Posner, the Legal Aid attorney.
“It provides the victims the opportunity to finally publicly assert her will and take an affirmative action on her behalf – ‘I’ve been living with this in private long enough; I’m going public with what has happened to me,’” she said.
In 2001, 106 people across the state were killed in domestic violence murders, according to the state Department of Justice.
Of those killed, 13 had taken out protective orders and six of the orders were current when the murder occurred.
Domestic violence laws often tie the hands of law enforcement and judges and attorneys in abuse cases, Fuller said. “The laws in many ways are limited and could be more expansive, but our judges and law enforcement can’t change the laws, they can only apply them,” he said.
Protective orders can also escalate violence, said Judge Joe Buckner, chief District Court judge for Orange County.
“About 25 percent of men respond in a more violent manner when they’re put under order,” he said.
Domestic violence could be better prevented with a GPS notification system used by law enforcement, Buckner said. Then officers could create safe zones around a victim and be alerted when an abuser is moving to into the zone, he said. Chatham County has such an electronic monitoring system, he said.
“If he gets out of that safe zone an alarm sends and a sheriff’s officer can respond,” he said.
In the last 10 years it’s become easier to prosecute abusers since breaking a protective order has become a criminal offense, Buckner said. But the limitations of the law remain.
“At the end of the day it’s a crime where the offender has had 24/7 access to the victim,” he said. “It’s a unique dynamic, not like robbery or like breaking and entering.”