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Curbing domestic violence

Abusive BehaviorJustice SystemChristopher B. Shank

Every year, police in Baltimore City respond to thousands of calls related to domestic violence. Officers arrest and charge abusive partners, judges issue protective orders to women who fear for their lives, and domestic violence counselors struggle to help battered women and their children recover from the physical and emotional traumas they have suffered. Yet despite the resources of time, money and manpower invested in these efforts, the killing hasn't stopped, or even slowed appreciably. So far this year there have already been five domestic homicides in Baltimore City, compared to six during all of 2012.

Nevertheless, there are steps society can take to help the victims of domestic violence. One bill being considered by the General Assembly this year, sponsored by Washington County Republican Sen. Christopher B. Shank, would allow judges to issue protective orders to women who are not related to abusive partners through marriage or by having children together. A second bill, backed by Attorney General Douglas F. Ganlser, would increase the jail time for offenders who commit acts of domestic violence in the presence of a minor. Both measures would give police, prosecutors and judges greater power to protect women and their children from abusive partners.

Under current Maryland law, only certain victims of domestic violence — spouses, relatives, people living together, vulnerable people and people with a child together — can obtain a protective order from a court that bars an abusive partner from harassing, intimidating or threatening them. The protective order sets relatively strict limits on an abuser's ability to communicate with their victims or approach their person, home, school or workplace.

Moreover, in issuing a protective order, the judge can also demand that any firearms in the abuser's possession be surrendered to the court for as long as the order remains in effect. Protective orders can be imposed for up to one year, and after that they can be renewed if a judge finds the victim's life remains in danger.

But victims who are neither married to nor living with their abusers — people in dating relationships gone bad — aren't eligible for a formal order of protection. In its place, a judge can issue a temporary "peace order," but the protections it offers are much more limited. For example, peace orders do not require police to conduct a "lethality assessment" to determine the seriousness or imminence of the threat posed by an abuser. Nor does it authorize a judge to confiscate the abuser's guns, an omission that more than once has had tragic consequences for domestic violence victims in Maryland.

Senator Shank's bill, which lawmakers failed to pass last year, would extend to anyone involved in "an intimate dating relationship characterized by the expectation of affectionate involvement" the right to apply for a protective order, greatly strengthening the court's power to deter abuse. The measure was approved by the Senate 45-2 this year but still awaits a hearing in the House.

Another area where deterrence needs strengthening lies in protecting children from the psychological trauma associating with witnessing domestic violence against a parent or caregiver. At one time it was thought that children were only considered victims of domestic violence if they had been physically harmed.

Yet more recent research has shown that the traumatic experience of seeing a parent or caregiver being violently assaulted itself inflicts grave emotional and psychological damage that can affect a child's development for years afterward. Not only are such children more likely to become abusers or victims themselves, they are also more likely to drop out of school, abuse alcohol or drugs, be unemployed or spend time in a juvenile detention facility. Mr. Gansler's bill would allow judges to extend the prison sentences of offenders who commit their crimes in the presence of minors as a way of deterring such behavior and ending the intergenerational cycle of domestic violence that damages individuals, families and communities.

Both of these bill will do good, but neither will instantly cure the problem. It's often asked why women who are in abusive relationships choose to remain with their partners rather than flee. The answer appears to be that victims often feel hopelessly paralyzed by the threats, lies, emotional trauma and violence inflicted by their partners and may even come to blame themselves for their situations. Meanwhile, some men will always resort to such methods to cement their control over others, no matter the legal consequences.

There's no way of knowing whether the tougher sanctions being considered in the legislature would have saved the lives of the five women who have died so far this year at the hands of abusive partners. But even incremental progress can make a difference in the lives of victims, and lawmakers owe it to them to put their tormentors on notice that they will be held accountable.

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