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Abuse shelter plans to improve its security

For almost 20 years, The Spring has offered the promise of safety and security to victims of domestic violence who seek help at the shelter.

Its location is kept secret. A large chain-link fence surrounds the property. Visitors can enter only after an intercom check.

However, an unusual accusation of rape at The Spring this week had officials taking action Thursday to protect shelter residents not only from outsiders but also from each other.

The changes came after a 35-year-old man accused an 18-year-old woman of rape over the weekend. A charge of sexual battery against the woman was dropped Wednesday after the man decided not to pursue the case.

Though The Spring has some security measures in place, officials met Thursday and agreed to take extra precautions to avoid future problems. The precautions include separating the shelter's few male clients from its female clients and purchasing video cameras to record activity in common areas.

"We are trying to cover all the bases and still be fair," said Mabel Bexley, the shelter's executive director. "We want to guarantee all clients are safe and feel safe and comfortable here."

Currently, 76 women and children live at the shelter along with one man. There are 16 bedrooms with bunk beds and connecting bathrooms.

The male client who made the rape accusation was housed in the building with the women but had his own bedroom and bath. It was unclear Thursday whether the man was still housed with the women.

Bexley said Tuesday the man's room was across the hall from Jennifer Patnaude, the woman he accused of rape. On Thursday, Linda Thielman, director of family services at The Spring, said she was not allowed by law to talk about clients, including where a client is housed.

Bexley did say the man was preparing to rent an apartment in Tampa.

Officials also would not disclose Patnaude's whereabouts, except to say she was no longer at The Spring. She had sought help from the shelter after her boyfriend was jailed on charges that he beat her. After Patnaude's release from jail, she called the shelter, Bexley said. Thielman would not say what happened after that.

"If we were to evict someone, we would find other housing for them," Thielman said. "We just don't throw people out on the street."

After meeting Thursday, shelter officials decided that temporary arrangements would be made to house men and women with older male children at a site away from The Spring property until a new dormitory at the shelter is complete in September.

The city of Tampa gave The Spring $75,000 to convert old day-care classrooms into additional dormitory space. A warehouse near the shelter will be converted into a school.

Shelter officials also decided to purchase additional video cameras that will record events in hallways and in common areas where clients socialize. Currently, cameras on the dormitory's second floor allow someone to monitor the area, but do not record.

"We want to make immediate changes so this doesn't happen again," said Bexley, who also said she hopes these changes will keep residents safe from all types of crime.

Since the rape allegation was made public this week, Bexley said she has received only one negative telephone call.

"I trust people to see through what appears to be a conflict between two people," Bexley said. "The community has been very supportive of our work in the past, and I hope that will continue."

The Spring was established by a group of women in 1977. In the facility's early days, abused women were housed in a small rented house near the Hillsborough River. When the house was full, many victims stayed at the homes of board members.

In July 1984, the first permanent facility was opened. The shelter provides housing, schooling, counseling and programs for victims of domestic violence. In 1995, The Spring helped about 1,300 battered adults, including about half a dozen men, and their children.

The Spring is one of 38 certified domestic violence shelters in the state, according to Lynn Rosenthal, executive director for the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. While only a handful of facilities provide housing for men, all shelters offer alternative arrangements for men who need assistance.