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Shank's domestic abuse bill could save a life

February 26, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

Perhaps the most important bill in Annapolis this winter has nothing to do with same-sex marriage, land use or gasoline. Instead, it has to do with life and death.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Chris Shank, R-Washington, would allow battered women to seek a protective order, even if they are not married to, or living with, their abusers.

A protective order itself is an imperfect document, but is superior to a peace order, which treats potentially deadly abusers as an annoyance — more like a barking dog than a predator.

But for a woman who is stalked, or involved in a more casual relationship, a peace order is the best she can do. Men who violate a peace order can be detained only after lengthy proceedings that includes a sworn complaint and an arrest warrant. Needless to say, when a fellow shows up on the doorstep armed, or with fists clenched, there is no time for such formalities.

One of the great implied freedoms in this nation is freedom from fear. Yet there can be no such freedom for those women who pull the curtain back to watch a man drive back and forth in front of her home all evening.

There can be no such freedom for women who must look both ways before walking out their doors in the morning. Or must studiously avoid shrubs and walls where someone might be crouching.

There can be no such freedom for women who must constantly monitor the rearview for signs of her pursuer.

It is difficult for those of us who have no experience in this regard to understand what it is like to get through the day not knowing what’s going to happen next: Where he might show up, where he might be hiding or what he might do. Every day becomes a stroll through a minefield.

And it’s a detriment to the society of this planet that we have allowed abuse, which all too often turns deadly, to endure.

We’ve known and written about the evils of persecution based on religion or race for centuries. In this nation alone, we’ve anguished over the violence done to slaves and Native Americans. Abuse by groups as disparate as police and the Mob, trade unions and robber barons, has been documented and legislated against.

Yet domestic relationship abuse remains in the shadows.

It really wasn’t until 1878 that domestic abuse got any ink at all, that coming with the publication in Britain of Francis Cobb’s “Wife Torture in England.” That led to the Wife Beaters Act of 1882, which for a first offense called for an offender to be thrown in prison — for up to four hours.

What happened next is somewhat emblematic of the uphill battle women have faced through the years. To the degree that domestic-abuse reform was pursued in the early 20th century, it took the form of attacking women rather than protecting them. Women were punished for being negligent mothers, or their children were punished for delinquency.

Conveniently, the spotlight was shifted away from the male abuser, which was no serious surprise, since men were writing the laws. A century after Cobb, abuse remained an undiscussed issue.

Domestic abuse experts say two things in the 1990s changed the equation. First, the disparaging of Anita Hill in the Supreme-Court nomination hearings for Clarence Thomas inspired a number of women to run for office. Two years later, Nicole Simpson was murdered. The combination of the two sped passage (three months after Simpson’s death) of the Violence Against Women Act, which might be considered the first meaningful domestic-abuse legislation.

As much as anything, this law helped raise awareness of domestic violence; it was no longer just the business of the man and woman involved. But the results have been spotty, hence the critical need for bills such as Shank’s, which are more applicable to real, day-to-day life than are sweeping federal initiatives.

In some ways, the boyfriend-girlfriend stage might be even more in need of policing than are more formal, live-in relationships. It is here that the two people are getting to know each other, and she might discover his dark side in time to avoid marriage, but not in time to blunt his pursuits.

It is a sad, but almost inevitable fact that before the year is out, one or two more women in the Tri-State area will be dead at the hands of an immature, insecure male who is unable to accept rejection. And while no law will protect every woman in every circumstance, the General Assembly must do all it can to make the job easier for local law enforcement, and to protect all women from living a life of fear.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. Reach him at timr@herald-mail.com.

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