Until 1992, victims of domestic violence in Maryland had little hope of protection from the courts. The state had one of the nation's weakest laws on civil protective orders -- decrees ordering an abusive family member or intimate friend to stay away. That changed in 1992, when the General Assembly significantly strengthened the law. The changes were a major improvement, but there are still loopholes that leave vulnerable family members -- usually women and children -- at risk of further abuse.
The new law expands the definition of abuse as well as the pool of people eligible for relief. It also lengthens the maximum time for protection to 200 days and allows the court to require that the abuser stay away not just from the petitioner's home, but also her school, place of work or temporary residence. Violation will result in arrest.
In the three months after the new law went into effect on Oct. 1, 1992, there was a 66 percent increase in the number of cases filed, as compared to the comparable period in 1991. But the increased number of cases has put stress on other parts of the legal system. For instance, law enforcement officials were faced with many more orders to serve, but they were not given more resources to help them accomplish a task that can often be dangerous.
The difficulty in serving the orders underscores a serious loophole in the statute. Currently, a temporary (ex parte) protection order is granted for seven days, until a court hearing can be held to determine whether a final order is appropriate and, if so, its conditions and length. But if the alleged abuser does not receive notification of the hearing, the court can't proceed and the hearing is rescheduled.
If a victim appears for a hearing four consecutive times and the abuser has still not been served notice, the order expires. A new order can be issued only after a new instance of abuse. That's a strong incentive to avoid the process server for a few crucial weeks.
Recommendation: Strengthen the law to allow a longer period for the temporary order and to allow other forms of sending notice of the hearing, such as publication in a newspaper or posting at the court house.
Recommendation: Remove the time limit. There is no magic in 200 days. Women in other states have found that it can take years to establish their safety.
Protection orders are a first line of defense for victims of domestic violence. These orders don't always prevent further abuse, but in many cases they do reduce the danger. By refusing to rest on its laurels, the General Assembly can make protection orders more effective by fine-tuning the 1992 law.