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SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS

The death of a Buffalo woman, allegedly at the hands of a former boyfriend, again has people searching for ways to stop the plague of domestic violence that strikes an estimated 4 million American women each year. Sadly, there is no easy answer. If there was, perhaps Margaret Valdez would still be alive.

Valdez died after getting an order of protection against the former boyfriend. But as police and domestic violence advocates know, orders of protection are too often just a hope and a prayer that go unanswered. According to one study, 60 percent of women who obtained such an order reported acts of abuse within a year.

The man charged with Valdez's murder, Allen Taylor, reportedly crumpled the order of protection issued by City Court Judge Margaret Murphy and stuffed it into his pocket. Some have said that should have been enough to warrant a finding of contempt that would have allowed Murphy to put Taylor in jail. And Katey Joyce, director of Child and Family Services Haven House, a shelter for battered women, says that kind of disrespect is an indicator of future aggressive behavior.

But that's the problem -- indications are not actions. There are no fool-proof indicators for future violence, says Charles Ewing, professor of law and psychology at the University at Buffalo who has worked with battered women for 15 years. And with the number of domestic-violence cases in City Court approaching the level of 4,000 a year, it simply isn't realistic to expect police to closely monitor all those who are issued orders of protection.

Given the discouraging history of domestic violence, women still have options. And many of them come under the heading of education.

Women need to know what those options are. They need to know how to get protection and whom to contact to get it. Haven House has a 24-hour hotline for women seeking help -- 884-6000. In Niagara County, women can call Passage House at 285-6984. Women in other Western New York counties should call their county's social service agencies or police to get the numbers they might need for help. Those agencies also can help with cellular phones and alarm systems that will summon help at the touch of a button.

In Buffalo and Niagara County, police reports of domestic violence are automatically forwarded to domestic-violence advocates so victims can be contacted and made aware of the help that's available. Some towns also offer that service. The Erie County Sheriff's Department has an advocate from Haven House who responds to calls handled by the department. But the county ought to think about establishing a countywide repository for domestic-violence reports from every town so they can be made quickly and easily available to advocates. Over the years, police and courts have begun to take domestic violence more seriously. Some police departments make arrests even without a wife pressing charges.

But despite the best efforts of the system, women still need to rely largely on themselves for the protection they need. The help is available. As tragic as domestic violence is, it would be even more tragic if it happened because a woman wasn't aware of the help that's available.