Editorial: Shelter From The Storm
Domestic violence is "a pattern of coercive, controlling behavior that can include physical abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, sexual abuse or financial abuse. It is a pervasive, life-threatening crime that affects thousands of individuals in Connecticut regardless of age, economic status, race, religion, sexual orientation or education," according to the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CCADV). For fiscal year 2011-2012 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), CCADV provided services to 57,785 Connecticut victims of domestic violence. That staggering number represents only those who sought help, not the total number who suffered at the hands of their abusers.
The services CCADV provided that year included shelter in emergency safe houses for 1,378 adults and 1,018 children who were in serious physical danger with no other place to go. According to Karen Jarmoc, executive director of CCADV, shelters in this state are at capacity "95 to 98 percent of the time." That's why recent events in Milford that resulted in the exclusion of a proposed domestic violence shelter from the town are particularly discouraging.
BH Care is a non-profit organization that provides a variety of health services, including shelters for victims of domestic violence. In January 2012, it purchased a home in a single-family zone in Milford to use as a shelter. The assistant city planner issued an opinion letter stating that the shelter was an appropriate use in the zone and that BH Care, through Birmingham Realty, its property-owning division, could proceed to establish the shelter without further approvals. To protect the safety of shelter residents and the staff members who serve them, it is important that a shelter's address not be readily available so that batterers and abusers cannot easily find them. In fact, there is an exception to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act providing that a public agency is not required to disclose any information about the location of a shelter for domestic violence victims.
In Milford, however, some neighbors learned the location of BH Care's proposed shelter and mounted a two-pronged attack to prevent its establishment. First, they retained an attorney to appeal the assistant planner's opinion letter to the town's Board of Zoning Appeals. At the same time, they started an online petition opposing the shelter and revealing its address. The petition was also posted on Twitter, Facebook, and the Milford Patch website. Some neighbors also mentioned the address at various public meetings. As a result, BH Care dropped its plans for the shelter because it concluded that the widespread publication of the address had rendered the location unsafe for potential residents and staff.
Having achieved their goal, those neighbors still pursued the matter before the Board of Zoning Appeals, arguing through their attorney that the residents of the shelter would not constitute a "family" as defined in the zoning regulations; that the shelter was an institutional use rather than a single-family residential use; and that BH Care should have requested a special use permit. Without specifying its grounds, the Board of Zoning Appeals rescinded the assistant city planner's letter approving the shelter.
It is important that a domestic violence shelter be located in a residential zone because many of the potential residents are children who have suffered terribly from their abusers. If the shelter can approximate some semblance of a safe family environment by being situated in a residential neighborhood, near families with children, with access to a school, those children can begin their recovery.
However, there is no uniformity among Connecticut towns with respect to regulations regarding domestic violence shelters in residential zones. Some may prohibit them outright; others may allow them by variance or special exception. Where town approval is necessary, opponents can effectively exclude a shelter by disclosing its proposed location at public hearings and via social media, as happened in Milford. Given the importance of such shelters, as demonstrated by the number of victims who use them, a statewide policy is necessary, for which there is precedent.
Connecticut General Statutes §8-3e prohibits treating several types of group homes and community residences differently from single-family residences. Those include: community residences that house six or fewer persons with intellectual disabilities; child-care residential facilities that house six or fewer children with mental or physical disabilities; community residences that house six or fewer persons receiving mental health or addiction services; and hospice facilities that provide inpatient hospice care and services to six or fewer persons.
Providing the protection of C.G.S. §8-3e to domestic violence shelters would establish uniform treatment throughout the state. Making them an as-of-right use together with the other uses in that section would eliminate the opportunity for opponents to exclude the shelters by disclosing their location at public hearings on applications for variances or special exceptions. The legislature should seriously consider adding domestic violence shelters to the other uses in C.G.S. §8-3e.•