PJC In The News

PJC Board Member Writes "Where's the Protection" for Battered Women

Where’s the protection?

May 19, 2006
Special to The Daily Record

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Battered women are frequently told to seek protective orders to keep them safe from their abusers. But consider these two recent Maryland cases.

On September 19, 2005, Yvette Cade appeared in court to oppose her husband’s motion to dismiss the protective order she had obtained in July. Ms. Cade expected to tell her story to a neutral factfinder who would listen to her concerns about the potential for further violence against herself and her child and rule fairly on the motion.

When her husband, Roger Hargrave, failed to appear before the court, the motion should have been dismissed. Instead, Ms. Cade faced Judge Richard Palumbo’s disbelief and derision. Palumbo disregarded Ms. Cade’s assertions that she continued to fear her husband and ridiculed her desire to divorce her husband, telling her that he wanted to be 6 foot 5 inches tall, but he couldn’t have what he wanted — and neither could she.

Judge Palumbo dismissed Ms. Cade’s protective order. Three weeks later, Roger Hargrave walked into the T-Mobile store where Ms. Cade worked, doused her with gasoline and set her on fire.

In March of 2006, Alison Kirby sought a protective order against her abusive boyfriend, Christopher McCann, based on his threats of violence. She showed the court cell phone pictures of his knife collection. Judge Michael Finifter weighed the evidence carefully and granted her the protection she requested. It didn’t matter. On Monday, May 1, 2006, McCann allegedly followed her to Wal-Mart and stabbed her repeatedly in the head, face and arms.

Ms. Kirby will need plastic surgery to repair the physical damage; the emotional scarring she is sure to endure will be much more difficult to treat.

Two women seeking protection from violent abusers. Two very different judges — one who belittles the women who come before him seeking protection, the other who thoughtfully provides such assistance. Two similar outcomes — women hospitalized after unfathomable violence. Two cases where battered women failed to realize the safety promised by the protective order system.

Protective orders keep many women safe. They give battered women a tool to prevent further violence and provide crucial legal relief: custody, emergency family maintenance, use and possession of a family home or car.

But they can’t work if judges are unwilling to believe the stories of the women who ask for them, dismiss their legitimate fears and deny their requests for protection. And even if the orders are granted, studies show that protective orders aren’t universally effective. They deter only those offenders who are afraid of the sanctions they carry — up to 90 days imprisonment and a $1,000 fine for a first offense, up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine for each subsequent offense.

For those undaunted by the thought of doing time (or those who know that few offenders ever receive maximum sentences for violating protective orders), the order is, as some battered women fear, not worth the paper it’s written on. Even the most conscientious judge can’t absolutely safeguard a woman from an abuser determined to harm her.
Over the past 30 years, the legal system has made enormous strides in addressing domestic violence (although the General Assembly’s recent failure to pass two bills to strengthen protections for battered women suggest that we have not come far enough). The temptation is to rest on those laurels, to assume that because we have improved the legal system we have done all we can to keep battered women safe. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The legal system has limits, and should be only one strategy among many in seeking to eradicate domestic violence. In addition to handling those cases that have already arisen, we should be searching for ways to prevent violence in the first instance.
Innovative programs to prevent domestic violence are being piloted throughout the country. These programs engage men in the struggle against domestic violence and teach young boys and girls that intimate partner violence is unhealthy and unacceptable.
The General Assembly should fund programs like these that work to stop violence before it starts. Focusing on prevention could keep women like Yvette Cade and Alison Kirby from ever needing the protection of the legal system — or the treatment of the medical system.

Leigh Goodmark, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, wrote this column for The Daily Record. The opinions expressed are hers and not necessarily those of this newspaper.

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