Cindy's husband roused their sleeping 12-year-old son at midnight. "You're the first one that's going to die," he said.

That night, Cindy and her three kids left the beatings, the threats, the daily violence of her crazy-jealous husband forever. After 16 years of marriage, of control so complete she lost herself, Cindy found the courage to face freedom."I thank God I'm free," said Cindy, who didn't want her real name used for fear her husband will find her. "I'm home, with my kids."

The two-bedroom apartment they share is an experiment in independence for battered women, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation: permanent homes with social services downstairs. Thursday marked the official opening. Six women and their children have moved in, and eight more are coming.

There are at least 4 million Cindys each year in America, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Every 15 seconds, a woman is beaten. Every six hours, a woman is murdered by her husband or boyfriend.

Still, women stay with their abusers, because a violent home often seems better than no home at all. And that is the choice.

The sad truth is that battering causes

homelessness. A Victim Services Agency study showed that 35 percent of women living in city homeless shelters were there to escape men who beat them.

"In order to protect yourself and care for yourself, you have to let go of everything: friends, family, furniture, clothing," said social worker Olosunde Johnson, who is helping these women face the future. "Things that you love, that have emotional value to you. And you have to walk out and leave that. And there's something wrong with that."

Cindy left, and lived in a shelter for battered women, one of 1,700 serving 20,000 cities nationwide. The National Domestic Violence Hotline receives 108,000 calls a year, about one-third of which request shelter. But the need far outstrips the available space.

A Los Angeles County grand jury found last year that 90 percent of the battered women and children who sought safety were turned away. In Washington, D.C., eight out of every 10 women are told there is no room. Advocates believe the situation is similar in New York, Chicago and other big cities.

"And then, after 90 days, you have to be uprooted again. This is victimization after victimization," Johnson said. "It just keeps eating away at the women and the children. `Who am I?' is a question that comes up. `Who am I?' "

The victimization stops at the glass doors on a residential street in Brooklyn, the ones that lead to these 16 apartments. Permanent homes, ones the women and their children leave of their own free will and return to, feeling safe.

"This man used to tell me when to go to bed, when to take a bath, when to get up, five minutes to go to the store, and after five minutes, there would have been a beating or a fight," Cindy, 33, said. "Now it's just me and the kids. Nobody to say, `No, you can't go, or if you go, I'm going to hit you.' And it's wonderful."

Advocates say this permanent housing, which cost $1.7 million over 18 months to develop, is the logical conclusion in the evolution of services for battered women. In the early '70s, people would open their private homes for abused women and their kids. Emergency shelters followed, where women could stay for up to three months.