FRANKFORT — Advocates for protections against domestic violence hugged and even shed some tears Thursday morning after a Kentucky Senate committee passed a measure to extend protections to dating couples. It's the first time that the proposal has made it out of committee.
"I am elated and hopeful," Darlene Thomas, executive director of the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program, said as she wiped her eyes. "It has been a long haul, but I feel it's a good promise for those who haven't had protection."
House Bill 9, sponsored by Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, was passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with one "no" vote cast by Sen. John Schickel, R-Union. The measure now moves to the full Senate.
Kentucky became a leader in domestic violence protection in 1984, when it passed a landmark bill to ensure protection through the civil courts. Although the same dating-protection measure has been passed by the House many times since then, it always stalled in the Senate. Kentucky is now one of three states, with South Carolina and South Dakota, that doesn't offer dating protections.
Advocates praised the new bipartisan spirit in the General Assembly, particularly praising the new Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a young Republican from Hopkinsville. Former Chairman Tom Jensen had said he was adamantly opposed to extending dating protections because he thought the criminal system did a good enough job.
Tilley said the criminal system focuses more on punishing the abuser than protecting the victim. The civil domestic violence system provides protection to the victim with immediate emergency orders, and it puts abusers' names in the LINK system, a national database available to police officers.
The criminal system "does not provide the protection that is necessary to protect that victim," Tilley said.
He cited several studies showing that civil domestic violence systems save money because early intervention for both abuser and victim can forestall criminal cases.
"Protective orders can be fashioned specifically as opposed to the criminal system," Tilley said.
Much of the opposition has stemmed from the difficult task of defining a dating relationship. With help from some Republican legislators, Tilley's bill now goes beyond the federal description by saying that the relationship has to be a "romantic or intimate nature" within the past three years of the offense, and it doesn't cover casual acquaintances or relationships between co-workers.
It also requires that if the couple attend the same schools, the court shall protect the victim with the least disruption to their schooling. Tilley said most domestic violence is a severe problem among teens and young people ages 16 to 24.
The bill passed 7-1. Schickel said he could not support the bill because "it opens up the court system to even more policing of social issues, and that's not what our court system needs."
But fellow Republican Westerfield said the measure was too "compelling" for him to ignore.
"There's an immediacy to an EPO (emergency protective order) or DVO (domestic violence order) that is really key," he said. "It bothers me not to do something about an honest-to-goodness threat."
Tilley and advocates said they hope they can muster the votes needed in the full Senate to turn the bill into law.
"I have to hope that we finally realize that this protection is needed in this state," said Marcia Roth of the Mary Byron Project, named for a Louisville woman who was killed by her boyfriend the day he got out of jail. "Those victims deserve protection."