Expand domestic violence law to protect daters

The excuses for denying domestic violence protections to dating couples are so weak and short-sighted — and the reasons for protecting more victims so compelling — it's hard to understand why this remains a point of contention in Kentucky.

But it does. Senate Judiciary Chairman Tom Jensen, R-London, says he does not know whether he will allow a committee vote on expanding the protective order system to include dating couples during the 2012 General Assembly that just began.

Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville, is sponsoring legislation, based on a Texas law, that would fix this dangerous gap in Kentucky's protective system. Similar legislation has twice been approved by the House, only to die in the Senate.

Jensen offered several explanations for why he opposes doing what 43 other states already have done. He says leaders of the state judicial system have not told him the change is needed, it could bog down the courts and women might seek protective orders out of spite.

He and other opponents should read reporting by Linda Blackford and Valarie Honeycutt Spears that was published in Sunday's Herald-Leader. It will open their eyes to how existing laws fall short of protecting vulnerable Kentuckians, especially young women. They will also learn of support for expanding protections among judges who are on the front lines of combating domestic violence.

As Fayette Family Court Judge Lucinda Masterton said, "What clogs up the courts now is we wind up having hearings on whether people actually live together."

Under Kentucky law, emergency protective orders and domestic violence orders are available only to people who have been married to each other, had a child or lived together, including same-sex couples.

That leaves out women such as Victoria Barbour, whose ex-boyfriend was driving by and shooting an AK-47 at her home after she recently broke up with him.

Jefferson Family Court Judge Jerry Bowles wanted to give her the protective order she sought. "She's broken off the relationship and she's at risk." But he could not under current law because the couple had never lived together during the nine years they dated. Bowles said he has presided over a number of cases in which this gap in the law has endangered people. "The ones that I've had have been very serious and I've been very concerned about their safety."

Trying to press criminal charges in such cases is slow and difficult if not impossible, while the civil system of domestic violence protections is designed precisely for such situations. It's fast, user-friendly and aimed at preventing violence from escalating while the criminal code is designed to punish violence after the fact.

As for the additional burden on courts that Jensen fears, if 43 other states have been able to handle the load, we are confident Kentucky's courts can too.

Moreover, last year, in anticipation of including dating couples in domestic violence law and mindful of the effect on court loads, the legislature changed the law to no longer include more distant family members such as cousins in the protective order law.

But then the legislature failed to expand the law to include dating partners. So Kentuckians lost a protection they already had and were denied one they need.

Finally, if there really are as many Kentuckians as Jensen thinks who would seek protection, that's an argument for more protection not less — unless you believe spiteful women pose a graver risk to Kentuckians' well-being than the threats, sexual assault and violence that more than a third of the state's women say they have endured at the hands of the men in their lives.