By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Ann has three young children and a husband who held a gun to her head.
"He threatened me in front of my kids, and my little boy started crying, and saying that he didn't want to be there," Ann recalls.
So on February 13, Ann called a battered women's shelter to get some help. She didn't have much time; she didn't know when her husband would storm back into the house. She needed to escape to a safe place.
Instead of help, Ann got frustrated. She had no transportation for her and her children. After more than a day of constant calls and constant danger, Ann bummed a ride to a shelter.
The directors of battered women's shelters say Ann's story is an alarming one that is becoming commonplace. If Ann had called before January 15, chances are that Ann would have spoken with a trained counselor who would have dispatched a mobile crisis-intervention team, which would have arrived with police to secure the scene, offer immediate counseling and whisk Ann and her children off to a domestic violence shelter.
But on January 15, COMCARE, the agency responsible for providing behavioral health care to Maricopa County residents, consolidated the Valley's crisis-intervention services into the COMCARE Crisis Response Network. Before the switch, three agencies--EMPACT in the East Valley, TERROS in north central Phoenix and Phoenix South in South Phoenix--offered counseling and mobile crisis intervention to people with all kinds of emergencies, including domestic violence situations.
COMCARE still contracts with those three agencies, but dispatches requests for assistance from its Phoenix headquarters. People with a mental health or other crisis now have one number to call: 222-9444.
It sounds like a good idea. Consolidating services will be more efficient and less costly, says Annette Morrison, communications officer for COMCARE.
But since the switch, battered women have found a system that is anything but efficient, according to directors at local domestic violence shelters. Three shelters--New Life in Litchfield Park; Autumn House in Mesa; and My Sister's Place in Chandler--report that since the changeover, their clients have had difficulty getting through COMCARE's crisis hotline to the services offered by EMPACT, TERROS and Phoenix South.
Shelter officials note that for many battered women, placing a call for help is a turning point in their lives--a time when a quick and supportive response may be a lifesaver. And they worry that COMCARE is letting battered women fall through the cracks.
Morrison says that isn't so, that COMCARE has a mandate to service every crisis in Maricopa County. But she acknowledges she hasn't researched the question that shelter employees have been asking: Will COMCARE still service their clients?
Morrison is not even sure if COMCARE will continue to offer emergency transportation.
She says, "I don't know if we would do that [arrange transportation] or if we would have to wait for another time when we didn't have other priorities going."
But she says of the system, "It is working very well. Naturally, everything new has its starts and stops."
One crisis counselor isn't as optimistic. "They had a good idea, but they didn't make the switchover smooth," says the counselor, who asked to remain anonymous. "We've had complaints--28 minutes, 38 minutes without any response." Beth Noble of Autumn House has one client who couldn't get help. Theresa Gates, director of My Sister's Place, had a client who was put on hold for 15 minutes before she was even asked to identify her problem.
Shelter officials say this didn't happen before COMCARE's consolidation. "They weren't put on hold," Gates says. "The call was taken immediately and transportation was arranged." Marliene deSera of New Life says she has been told by COMCARE supervisors that domestic violence victims will no longer be served by the hotline. She's seeing it happen. She says her shelter referred two callers to the hotline for transportation, but the women were not helped and have not called back. DeSera says both calls were placed from pay phones and that one of the women had three children with her and was sobbing because her husband was out looking for them.
DeSera says her clients have been told to call a cab or Dial-A-Ride (which in turn informed callers that it doesn't service domestic violence victims) or catch a bus. Or to call back in the morning.
She's outraged. Most of her clients don't have money for a cab, and often need immediate intervention to get out of the house before their husbands come back. Cab drivers aren't equipped for crises, she says. And the next morning is often too late.
"Quite honestly," deSera says, "COMCARE doesn't have a real good record of doing anything well, and now all of a sudden, they're going to be the only game in town.