Politics & Government

Advocates push for protections against dating violence in Kentucky

On Dec. 16, Victoria Barbour asked Jefferson Family Court for a civil emergency protective order because her ex-boyfriend "drove past my home for two days shooting his AK-47 at my home."

"We have never lived together," Barbour said in her petition for the domestic violence order to stop the man from contacting her. "We dated nine years. I basically broke up with him completely two days ago. I never let him move in because I have children at home."

The police, Barbour said in the petition, "advised me they would not do a report until they find him. I am asking for no contact at all."

She was turned down. Kentucky law does not allow dating couples to get domestic violence orders. They're available only to couples who are married, living together or once did, or have a child together.

"I'm in fear for my life. I'm petrified," Barbour, 35, said in an interview last month. "I need some emergency protection."

Kentucky's domestic violence advocates will push state lawmakers again this year to include protections against dating violence in the state's domestic violence laws. Although 43 other states give such protections to dating couples, calls to change Kentucky's law have been rejected repeatedly by lawmakers in recent years.

"It's a clear example of a gap that we have," said Jefferson Family Court Judge Jerry Bowles, who reluctantly turned down Barbour's request for protection. "... She had broken off the relationship and she's at risk, and I can't give her law enforcement protection under the civil protection statute."

Opponents of the idea have successfully argued over the years that crimes such as stalking and assault among dating partners may be addressed through existing laws, and that expanding domestic violence protection to dating partners would bog down the courts.

But for many victims, the criminal justice system takes too long and doesn't provide the same kinds of protections offered by civil domestic violence laws, advocates contend. For example, protective orders generally are served immediately, are often taken more seriously by police, and may last for an extended time.

Marcia Roth, director of The Mary Byron Project, a Louisville organization that fosters strategies to end domestic violence, said the criminal system focuses on punishing the perpetrator, while the civil system focuses on protecting the victim.

"If a respondent violates a protective order, it triggers a police response," Roth said. "If a perpetrator is given a no-contact order after a criminal conviction and violates that order, the victim must go down to the courthouse and file a complaint. This is a huge difference in the criminal versus the civil system as it relates to domestic violence."

It's heartbreaking to tell someone that their only choice is to file criminal charges, said Sherry Currens, executive director of the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association.

"When people call. they need immediate protection. They need someone to intervene at that point," Currens said.

When she was a college student in 2003, Angelina Alcott said she was date-raped by a fellow student. After she pressed charges, and his friends started to harass her, she asked police and court officials in Hart County if she could get a civil protective order to prevent the man from contacting her.

Like Barbour, she was turned down.

It was not until the perpetrator was convicted of sexual misconduct that the judge ordered the man to have no contact with Alcott as a term of his probation, she said. (The Herald-Leader normally does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Alcott agreed to use her name in this story.)

"If I had been able to get a protective order, I would have felt safe," said Alcott, now 27.

Growing problem

Advocates say there is increasing evidence that domestic violence can be a problem long before couples move in together, particularly on college campuses and high schools.

A study released Dec. 14 by the Centers for Disease Control found that one in four women nationwide had experienced violence from an intimate partner.

That number was even higher in Kentucky, where the study said nearly 38 percent of women had experienced rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetimes.

That matches research done by Carol Jordan at the University of Kentucky Center for Research on Violence Against Women.

In 2007, Jordan and her researchers found that 36 percent of female students had experienced rape, assault or stalking during their time at UK.

"Research tells us that protective orders reduce violence over time, so why do we have a large population of people who can't access that protection?" asked Jordan, who was a long-time domestic violence advocate in Frankfort before going to UK.

"I've been working in this area for almost 30 years, and I have greatly appreciated the General Assembly's openness in making Kentucky safer for women, but this is one key piece they still need to pass to complete the package of legislative remedies," Jordan said.

'Loading down the courts'

The issue of dating violence protection has appeared before the legislature in the past, even clearing the state House in 2011 before dying without a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Committee Chairman Tom Jensen, R-London, remains skeptical about the need for such protections. If a dating violence bill reaches his committee this year, Jensen said he doesn't know whether he'll call a vote on it.

"My concern is that we have a criminal code that covers everything, and secondly we'll be loading down the courts," said Jensen, an attorney. "What if someone is just spiteful or what if someone just misreads what the relationship is?"

Jensen said leaders of Kentucky's judicial system have not told him the legislation is necessary.

Pike County Family Court Judge Larry Thompson, former president of the Kentucky Circuit Judge Association, said he would need to see any bill before he could decide whether it's needed.

"We don't get a lot of those requests, but that may be because people know dating is not one of the categories," Thompson said. "I know a lot of these kinds of cases will get criminal charges anyway."

But Fayette Family Court Judge Lucinda Masterton said the law was desperately needed, and it would not clog the judicial system.

"What clogs up the courts now is we wind up having hearings on whether people actually live together," she said. "This needs to happen."

Bowles, the Jefferson Family Court judge, said he has presided over a number of cases in which dating partners wanted protective orders and could not get them.

"The ones that I've had have been very serious and I've been very concerned about their safety," Bowles said. "Domestic violence encompasses anyone who's been involved in an intimate relationship who is using or threatening to use abuse as a way to maintain control over that individual and maintain that relationship."

While one bill on dating violence has been filed in the Senate by Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville, other versions probably will be filed by the time the General Assembly starts on Tuesday, said Alicia Sells, a lobbyist hired by The Mary Byron Project.

Sells said the bill her group supports will use Texas' definition of what constitutes dating.

Texas law states that a "dating relationship" is one between individuals who have or had a continuing relationship of a romantic or intimate nature. To determine whether a dating relationship exists, officials must consider the length of the relationship, the nature of the relationship, and the frequency and type of interaction between the persons involved.

The law also says that "casual acquaintanceship or ordinary fraternization in a business or social context" does not constitute a "dating relationship."

Kaity's Law

Arizona is one of the most recent of the 43 states to approve dating violence legislation. Kaity's Law, as it's known, was passed in 2010 after Kaity Sudberry, 17, was shot to death in 2008 by her ex-boyfriend as she was coming home from school. He then killed himself.

Her family could get only a no-contact order against him after he assaulted her three times, but it was never served.

"If this law had been in place, one of the three times he assaulted her, he would have been arrested, and they would have taken away the shotgun he used to kill Kaity," said her mother, Bobbi Sudberry, who started an advocacy group called Kaity's Way after Kaity's death. "Kentucky has an opportunity to stop something as what happened to Kaity by passing this law. This does not start when two people move in together, it starts before that. The legal system needs some recourse."

Sudberry said prosecutors in Arizona have told her frequently how well the law works.

Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, travels around the country and said she's never heard of a state's judicial system being harmed by dating protections.

Instead, she said, it's vital because research shows the population at highest risk of domestic violence is those age 16 to 24.

"We can't wait until someone decides their marital status before we provide protection," she said.

Saving money

Other research shows protective orders can save taxpayers' money as well.

TK Logan, a professor in the UK Department of Behavioral Science, said a study she led found that protective orders saved the state an estimated $85 million in 2007.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Justice and released in 2009, tracked more than 200 victims every time they called police, went to court or used a service as a result of domestic violence. The study also followed the perpetrator's time in jail and how many hours victims lost in time off work, Logan said.

She said even more money might be saved if the protections were extended to dating couples.

"Dating violence is costing our society money," she said. Victims "are calling the police. They are using health and mental health care. Because those are the consequences of abuse."

Another benefit to extending dating violence protections, Logan said, is that younger offenders might learn early that there are consequences for violent behavior in a relationship.

Gretchen Gruenberg agrees. The UK senior, 21, started dating a boy when she was 14 and a freshman in high school. He was two years older, and at first, he flattered her with his attention and devotion.

Then he started calling her every night to tell her what to wear to school the next day, she said. He'd walk her to class to make sure she didn't talk to any boys, and walk by her classes to make sure of the same.

After he allegedly forced her to have sex, she broke up with him. That's when he started finding her at school and yelling obscenities at her.

The school police officer stopped the behavior before any violence occurred, Gruenberg said, but she didn't realize he already was showing classic signs of an abuser.

"He was consuming my entire life. He would threaten to kill himself if I broke up with him," she said. "People think this can't happen to them, but it is a very real issue. It's essential that dating couples get some protection because there's evidence it's not just present in married life."

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