FRANKFORT — For the first time in years, a bill to expand civil protective orders to dating partners — including young students in relationships that turn violent — has a good shot at being signed into law in Kentucky.
The House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved House Bill 8 on Tuesday and sent it to the House for further action. Shortly before that, the bill was endorsed at a news conference by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, first lady Jane Beshear, Republican Senate and Democratic House leaders, and advocates for domestic violence victims.
"Today we find ourselves one of the last states in the nation without such protections," said the governor, who frequently has called for tougher laws on dating violence, most recently in his State of the Commonwealth address last month. "For several sessions, we have been discussing these protections. This session, we're gonna pass a bill."
"I'll be happy to support this bill and to move it through," Senate Judiciary chairman Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, told Beshear. "I look forward to getting it in the Senate and working to make sure that these protections come out in the end and land on your desk, governor."
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In the past, House bills that would extend domestic violence protection to dating partners failed in the Senate. Conservative senators said they didn't want to redefine "domestic" in the law to include couples other than those who are married or living together or who have children together. At present in Kentucky, only couples in those categories may allege abuse and apply in court for a 14-day emergency protective order, which a judge may later extend after a hearing.
HB 8 attempts to sidestep this objection. It writes a new chapter of Kentucky law, unrelated to domestic relations, creating "interpersonal protective orders" that courts may issue to dating or domestic partners. The 50-page bill describes dating as a relationship of "a romantic or intimate nature," and it offers a half-dozen possible factors, such as "the expectation of affection." The legal definition of "domestic" remains untouched.
The semantic maneuver might satisfy enough lawmakers to win approval in both chambers. Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, who previously opposed such bills, told reporters that HB 8 was "far better" and had "a high likelihood of success once we get some details worked out."
Under the bill, protective orders could cover several new categories of Kentuckians, including gay and lesbian couples who don't live together, and high school and college students.
It is tragically common for women to be assaulted while at college, supporters of the House bill said Tuesday.
Marion Brown, who runs a Hopkinsville women's shelter, told the judiciary committee about a 19-year-old community college student she counseled who was thrown against the wall of her bedroom by a jealous boyfriend, who then stalked her around campus. The student was ineligible for a protective order because she wasn't married to her stalker, hadn't lived with him and didn't have a child by him, Brown said.
"It's our advocates, and the advocates of our sister agencies, who are sitting next to these dating violence victims. We have to tell them why they're not eligible for civil protection across the commonwealth," Brown said. "We're hearing the stories, we're seeing the tears, we're witnessing the fear, and we're watching them leave our buildings not feeling safe."
This year's bill would do more than include dating partners. It also would:
■ Add stalking to the list of offenses that may be cited on a petition for a protective order. Kentucky law does not currently offer protection against stalking until the stalker is convicted, said House Judiciary chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, the sponsor of HB 8. That can be too late, Tilley said. He cited the example of television actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was shot to death at her front door in 1989 by an obsessed fan who had stalked her for three years.
■ Allow judges automatically to enter a 10-year protective order against people convicted of rape, sodomy or sexual abuse unless their victims object.
■ Let people petition the courts to have a temporary protective order expunged from their public record. Before they could make that request, though, five years must pass and the court must not have had cause to make the temporary order a permanent one, such as evidence of harassment or arrests.
■ Provide for data collection about domestic and dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in order to analyze how frequently these incidents occur and why.
Violating a protective order is a Class A misdemeanor, which may be punished by up to a year in jail.
In a 2009 study by the University of Kentucky department of behavioral science, half of the 188 people who obtained protective orders reported a violation by their attacker or harasser within six months.
"Protective orders are just pieces of paper in the absence of assertive enforcement," the researchers wrote in their report. "This study suggests that protective order enforcement has room for improvement. Specifically ... results of this study show that in those cases with reported violations, few perpetrators were arrested and even fewer had official charges that were noted in their court records. This trend was even greater for cases from the rural area."
Still, the researchers said, protective orders clearly kept people safe in many instances.
"This study shows that, for most women, protective orders reduce violence and save the state millions of dollars of avoided costs," they wrote.