More protection for victims of abusive relationships

"He will not stop and doesn't take 'no' for an answer," Hagerstown resident Heather Harris wrote last May in a handwritten appeal for court protection against her abusive ex-boyfriend, Randy McPeak. Less than a month later, Ms. Harris was murdered by the man she feared, after he broke into her home and shot her twice in the head.

The killing demonstrated the need for stronger protections for victims of domestic violence who, like Ms. Harris, are placed in jeopardy by an abusive partner who is neither a spouse nor a relative nor a live-in companion. A bill introduced this year by Sen. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican, would expand eligibility for court protective orders to victims of abuse who are not directly related to or living with an abusive partner but nevertheless feel themselves to be in jeopardy.

In the Hagerstown case, had Ms. Harris and Mr. McPeak been married or sharing a dwelling, she could have sought a protective order issued by a judge that set relatively strict limits on her tormentor's ability to communicate with her or approach her person, home or workplace. But because the couple had only a dating relationship, the most Ms. Harris could get from the court after she broke off the connection was a temporary peace order whose protections were far more limited in scope. In her hour of need, Maryland's laws abandoned her.

There is, of course, no way of knowing whether the stronger protections offered by a formal order of protection from the court might have saved Ms. Harris' life. Mr. McPeak, who barricaded himself inside the victim's home for several hours before surrendering to authorities, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder last year in a killing that was clearly a crime of passion. Such offenses are difficult to deter even when the law favors the victim. But there's no question that anyone forced to live in fear for their life by an abusive relationship ought to be able to call on the strongest possible protections from the courts.

In testimony before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee this week, Cherie Myers, another domestic abuse victim from Hagerstown, told lawmakers how her ex-boyfriend had stalked her, bombarded her with frequent messages and threats, and ultimately assaulted her physically during an attack last year in which she was knocked to the ground and repeatedly kicked in the head. "I was in fear for my life the whole time he was beating me, and I thought I was going to end up dead, just like Heather Harris," Ms. Myers told lawmakers.

Senator Shank's bill would extend the eligibility requirements for protective orders — which currently include spouses, relatives, people living together, vulnerable adults and people with a child together — to anyone involved in "an intimate dating relationship characterized by the expectation of affectionate involvement." Among other things, the measure would also require authorities to conduct a "lethality assessment" of the danger facing people, especially women, applying for protective orders, something not required by a peace order.

If approved, the proposed legislation would give judges greater latitude in determining when someone's life is in danger from an abusive relationship and would strengthen the courts' ability to respond effectively. No one should have to fear for their life when an intimate relationship goes bad. Lawmakers should seize this opportunity to show that Maryland, which too often has failed to protect victims of domestic violence in the past, is ready to safeguard everyone threatened by an abusive, violent partner regardless of their marital status or housekeeping arrangements.

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