For the past decade, the Kentucky General Assembly has considered a proposal that would allow dating couples to obtain domestic violence protective orders. Each year, it has died.
Although Kentucky passed groundbreaking domestic violence protections during the 1980s, it is now the only state without civil protections for dating couples — people who have not been married, lived together or shared a child.
Gov. Steve Beshear and his wife, Jane, hope to change that during his final year in office.
"This is not only a top priority for me," Jane Beshear said during a recent telephone interview, "it's a top priority for this office. Steve has been working with leadership to find a bill that is palatable to everyone in hopes we can pass it and then move on to other important things."
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Very soon after Steve Beshear was elected in 2007, the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association, now known as the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence, contacted Jane Beshear to become an advocate for the bill.
"It's one of those things that if you've not experienced it (domestic violence), then you don't necessarily see it because it's usually hidden," Jane Beshear said. "So I became very interested and wanted to do everything I could. It affects men and women and children, but particularly women."
A pair of Hopkinsville legislators, Democratic Rep. John Tilley and Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, have been working on the legislation for several years; in 2013, Westerfield became the first Senate Judiciary Committee chairman to get the bill passed out of his committee.
Westerfield said he presented information about the proposal to the Senate Republican caucus in early December and thinks 2015 will be the year the bill becomes law.
"Part of this makes sense to me because I'm a former prosecutor," Westerfield said. "We need this law — Kentucky is the last state in the country that has no protection whatsoever."
Jane Beshear said dating protections were particularly important to young people, especially young women in high school and college.
She recently worked with a group of teenage girls in Louisville who shared their stories of abuse.
"Hearing it from the young people themselves, it really made me determined that we have got to be able to protect our young people," she said. "If we can do something to make changes early on, maybe we can improve the situation later on."
Not coincidentally, the states with the least amount of protective laws have the highest amount of violence against young victims. The National Conference of State Legislatures recently produced a report that found Kentucky, Wyoming, Arkansas and Maryland all had some of the nation's highest percentages of high school students who had experienced dating violence — more than 14 percent.
Some Republican legislators have opposed the bill because they said dating partners can get protection under criminal laws. But the civil protections against domestic violence are what provide immediate emergency protective orders that keep abusers away from their victims, Tilley said.
"Domestic violence is almost always a passionate or violent act, and that delay can be the difference between life and death," he said.
Tilley said leaders in both parties have been working on the proposed legislation, and he thinks most misunderstandings have been cleared up.
For example, the legislation would create a chapter of state statute that takes all domestic violence laws — including the proposed dating protections — out of a chapter dealing with family relations and into its own section.
Tilley is hopeful.
"I think we have more support than we've ever had," he said. "It took some time to build up the focus where the nuances would be understood."
Westerfield said it was important for people to realize that seeking a civil protection order doesn't mean you can't also file criminal charges. But right now, the vast majority of dating couples don't file anything in cases of violence.
"Victims aren't going into court at all," he said. "Maybe this protective order cools everything down, so criminal charges aren't necessary, but we're not going to take away power of criminal conduct if behavior warrants that kind of response."
Plus, Westerfield said, it makes no sense that Kentucky must honor protective orders from other states, so "we're protecting everyone's victims but our own."
Marcia Roth is director of The Mary Byron Project, named for a Louisville woman who was killed by her boyfriend the day he got out of jail.
She said the bill also would protect older women who might be divorced or widowed and end up in a violent relationship.
Roth said it's important that dating couples have somewhere to find help without having to file criminal charges.
"The beauty of a protective order is that if the respondent complies with the judge's order to cease the kind of behavior he or she is exhibiting, there is no sanction," she said. "It's civil, so it's preventative rather than punitive."
That's particularly important when you're talking about young people, she said.
"If you can get to a kid before that behavior is so ingrained and becomes more and more violent, you can stop bigger problems," she said. "It also gives schools and universities a way to step in and make sure their students are protected."