Advocates with the three state-certified domestic violence centers in Broward and Palm Beach counties say demand for their services — emergency shelter beds, counseling services and crisis hotline calls — is up for the second year in a row.
And, advocates say, they are seeing a disturbing uptick in the viciousness of some attacks.
"Not only are there more people coming for services, but the incidents that are occurring are more violent and more lethal, and that is disturbing," said Mary Riedel, president of Women in Distress of Broward County .
The year-over-year numbers, advocates say, point to more domestic abuse incidents taking place during stressful economic times, even if they don't always involve a call to police or an arrest. The domestic homicide rates in Broward and Palm Beach — among the top five in the state in recent years — reflect the far extreme of the violence.
Tough financial times and the resulting stresses on families may be the most significant contributing factor. Job losses, reduced income, falling behind on rent or mortgage payments, credit card bills piling up; money problems easily translate into anxiety, frustration and even rage.
At one shelter in southern Palm Beach County , Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, there was a 37 percent jump in the number of people seeking an emergency place to stay, from 276 people to 379. And there was a 56 percent increase in people who received counseling and other services.
"In our shelters, we are seeing a tremendous increase in the people coming in," said Pam O'Brien, the shelter's president. "We had seen a tremendous increase last year, then on top of it, this year we saw another increase."
Women in Distress, the county's only state-certified shelter, saw a more modest increase, nearly 6 percent, in the number of people who needed emergency shelter. But the center also saw a 56 percent jump in the number of people — from 1,847 to 2,880 — enrolling in prevention and counseling programs.
"Since the economy started tanking, the incidents started to go up," said Mary Cauthen, director of domestic abuse programs at the YWCA of Palm Beach County , which operates the Harmony House shelter. "Money is already a stressor, and it exacerbates the situation terribly."
In September, Harmony House had 74 mothers and their children seek shelter, more in one month than Cauthen had seen in a decade with the YWCA.
"It was more than my staff could handle, but we did it," she said.
Harmony House sheltered 20 percent more women and children in the fiscal year ending in June. Cauthen, like others who work with battered women, said the violence often now involves a weapon of convenience of some sort, such as a belt or an electrical cord.
"It is really getting more violent. The things that are being done are atrocious kinds of things," she said. "I've seen some of the worst cases in the last year or year and half than I have seen in my 10 years here."
Last year, there were 15 domestic homicides in Palm Beach County , 13 in Broward and 22 in Miami-Dade, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Statistics for this year are not yet compiled.
Muriel Waldmann is a former Broward Sheriff's Office detective who works as a victim's advocate with Boynton Beach police and heads the team of professionals that reviews Palm Beach County 's domestic homicides. She said most of the murders are preceded by break-ups, divorces or custody or child-support disputes.
In one recent three-week period, Boynton Beach police responded to more than 100 domestic abuse calls, an unusually high number.
"I did a double-take," Waldmann said.
Battered women often say they can't afford to get out of their abusive relationships. They lack the money for rent and security deposits, or don't make enough to support their children, said O'Brien, whose Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse has a two-year transitional housing program.
"They feel trapped," she said. "We are trying to get the message out that there are a lot of options available to them."
At Women in Distress, more men are coming in for help with abusive women, said mental health counselor Shari Randerson. With a 72 percent increase in the number of men — from 180 to 310 — in counseling, the center now offers group sessions for them, something that was not necessary in the past.
"The demand is there, the need is there," Randerson said. "The guys are saying, 'Enough already, it happens to me, too.'"
Fort Lauderdale psychologist Laura Hohnecker, who has worked with families for 40 years and specializes in domestic violence cases in criminal court, said there is a lot of generalized anger in society these days.
"You see people who say, 'We are angry. We want change. We want it now,' " she said. "That is not likely to happen. Where is that anger and frustration going? It's going into the family."
Abusers won't change until they realize they are responsible for their own actions and take responsibility for them, which almost always involves