You're a victim of domestic violence and you've finally decided to get help. You need to get out. Now. You contact the Monroe County Department of Human and Health Services and you and your children are sent to... the Cadillac Hotel?!
"That place is horrible. That's the last place you want to send a battered woman," says county legislator Carla Palumbo. "That's the sleazeball zone --- drug addicts... It's just horrifying."
But it does happen.
"Sometimes they end up at the Cadillac Hotel because [the county] didn't call us to get the woman in, to see if we have a bed," says Cathy Mazzotta, executive director of Alternatives for Battered Women. "If they've called us and there's no openings, then we'll work with them to do the alternative, which, in very extreme circumstances, would be the Cadillac."
The bright bank of artificial flowers in the hotel lobby is a shock of color imprisoned by dingy wood walls and a carpet dotted with discarded gum.
A woman leans over the counter, engaged in conversation with a hotel clerk on the travails of pop star Michael Jackson.
"Why do people continue to leave their children with him?" she asks.
"Because they want him to molest them," the clerk responds. "It's big bucks!"
The clerk's partner behind the desk --- his back turned toward the lobby --- smokes despite the red "No Smoking" sign on the wall a few feet away.
Everyone who applies for public assistance from DHHS is screened for domestic violence, but the problem might not surface in the interview.
The county uses the hotel at 45 Chestnut Street as a kind of "warehouse" for the homeless and people who can't get in at other shelters, mostly due to behavioral problems or because the shelters are at capacity, says Patricia Connelly, manager of the county's division of financial services.
The county, Connelly says, has "gone to great lengths to reduce occupancy" at the Cadillac by increasing capacity at other shelters, but it hasn't been able to eliminate the need for the hotel entirely.
"It's just an unacceptable way to treat human beings," says legislator José Cruz. "We have to be able to do something."
Placing a battered woman at the Cadillac does almost nothing to improve her situation because the hotel lacks ABW's programs and services. It may also put her in danger, because the hotel doesn't have ABW's security.
"It's a welfare hotel," Mazzotta says. "Granted, it may be a viable resource for some people, but if you're a mom with kids, that's going to be kind of a scary place to be."
Leaving a batterer is often a victim's first exertion of power in the relationship, Palumbo says, so security is crucial.
There is another interesting --- or disturbing, depending on your point of view --- aspect in the way the county treats victims of domestic violence. State regulations provide for a 90-day stay at a certified shelter. That can be extended by 45 days in some cases.
"Our county, for whatever reason, has limited it to or tries to limit it to a 30-day stay," Mazzotta says. "New York City does 90 days without blinking an eye. So does ErieCounty. In general, I hear about a lot of other counties that do 90 days, because they go by what's in the regulations."
According to the state Office of Children and Family Services, the average length of stay in bed nights at domestic violence shelters in New YorkState (excluding New York City) was 35 in 2001 and 25 in 2002.
But the office says that length-of-stay policy can be individually determined through contract arrangements with a district and a provider.
Calls to MonroeCounty communications director James Smith were not returned. But speaking to a meeting of the county's Human and Health Services Committee on November 17, Sherri Wood, the county's acting director of Human and Health Services, answered in the affirmative when Palumbo asked her if the county provided for only a 30-day stay at ABW.
That's incorrect, according to Mazzotta.
"It's not part of the contract," she says. "It can't be, because that would be illegal. It's something that people have just done for a long time without really thinking about it. The institutional memory gets lost on this stuff."
ABW sheltered 729 women and children last year. It's important to have the 90-day option, Mazzotta says, because of the nature of domestic violence.
"It may take a while for a woman to get the stuff she needs in place for the court. A lot of times they leave and they have nothing," she says. "They have no identification papers, they don't have birth certificates, they don't have social security cards for themselves or their kids. We have to help them get all of those things."
The process can be slowed, too, by the courts or by how long it takes the victim to find adequate housing, a job, or to receive benefits.
"Most women probably don't want to stay in a shelter 90 days, but a lot of systems have to get into place," Palumbo says.
The county does extend stays in some cases, Mazzotta says, but since the reorganization of social services earlier this year, the pressure has really been on to hit the 30-day mark.
"It used to be more flexible," she says. "They've gotten much more rigid since they started cutting social service programs to the bone."
If ABW feels strongly a woman needs to stay and the county won't pay, ABW will sometimes "eat the cost," Mazzotta says.
"You can't put your shelter providers in that kind of situation, because pretty soon there won't be a shelter to send people to," she says.
The average length of stay at ABW is anywhere from 12 to 21 days, Mazzotta says. And that's with the staff really hustling to get the women out of the shelter.
Mazzotta is working with the county to try to educate DHHS on why extensions might be needed.
"There are good people in the county who want to do the right thing. It's not like they don't care," Mazzotta says. "I think they're all trying to balance the fiscal stuff with the service delivery. But we don't say people need extensions for no reason at all. I'm not saying we should just automatically say 90 or 135 days. But we need that option."