ANNAPOLIS – Domestic violence has its roots in the human heart. Even the staunchest advocates for the estimated 4 million men and women who are attacked nationwide each year would admit that the problem can’t be legislated away.
That doesn’t stop them from trying.
“It’s still difficult to get people interested in the issue, despite the O.J. case and other notorious cases. It’s less sexy,” said Del. Sharon Grosfeld, D-Montgomery. “When you’re trying to get into the nuts and bolts of the law, it doesn’t seem as attractive as a year-and-a-half long case, but it’s the changes in the law that’s going to change people’s lives.”
Grosfeld, with four bills before the 1996 General Assembly, is among Maryland lawmakers trying to strengthen laws already on the books.
One of her measures would require Maryland law enforcement officials to arrest people who violate a protective order from another state.
A second would make someone who fails to complete a court- ordered counseling program guilty of a misdemeanor. Carole Alexander, executive director of Baltimore’s House of Ruth, said fewer than a third of those referred to her agency for such counseling ever finish the program.
The third duplicates provisions in Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s gun control legislation: requiring those ordered to limit contact with a partner or spouse to surrender any firearm they own, and prohibiting them from purchasing a gun.
Federal law already bars people subject to a restraining order from owning a firearm. The problem, said Bob Walker, legislative director for Handgun Control Inc. in Washington, D.C., is that too few local officials refer cases to U.S. prosecutors.
For example, as of July 1995 only 7 of the 41,000 people denied handgun permits for making false statements on the Brady Law application form have been successfully prosecuted, Walker said.
Likewise, said Joanne Saltzberg, executive director of the Maryland Commission for Women, federal law requires states to honor each other’s protective orders, but local authorities are reluctant to act without a local law.
Bob McMurray, chairman of the Maryland Committee Against the Gun Ban, said the weapons bills won’t pass because they require surrender of a firearm as soon as there is a temporary, or ex parte, protective order. When such orders are issued, the alleged abuser is often not present.
“Nobody in the gun rights movement supports domestic violence or violence of any sort. However, we do still want to keep it along the American form of justice, [where] the person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law,” McMurray said.
Bonnie Kirkland, Glendening’s legislative liaison, said the governor’s bill would be amended to ensure no one would surrender a weapon solely on the basis of an ex parte order. Under the bill, however, police could confiscate a weapon when responding to a domestic violence call.
Grosfeld’s last proposal would enable victims of domestic violence to divorce immediately. Currently, couples must separate for at least a year unless someone has committed adultery.
“Our position is if you’re not sexually safe in your marriage, if you’re not physically safe, you should be able to file,” said Cynthia Golomb, lobbyist for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.
Grosfeld isn’t alone in pushing legislation:
– Del. Marilyn Goldwater and Sen. Jennie Forehand, Montgomery County Democrats, are sponsoring bills to prevent insurance companies from discriminating against domestic violence victims.
– Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore Co., has introduced a bill to add a warning to every application for a marriage license, emphasizing the right of each partner to “live within this marriage free from violence and abuse.”
– Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, and Del. Sue Hecht, D- Frederick, have sponsored bills requiring that people pay an extra $75 to file for divorce, with the money going to fund domestic violence prevention programs.
– Del. Ann Marie Doory, D-Baltimore, has introduced a bill permitting lay advocates to continue assisting battered women without being accused of practicing law without a license.
– Del. Matthew Mossburg, R-Montgomery, has sponsored a bill to provide money to purchase special alarms with which victims could call police when in danger. The money would come from fines for violating protective orders.
According to the State Police, more than 20,000 spousal assaults were reported in 1994, an increase of 4 percent over 1993.
But this understates the problem, said Mary Pat Brygger of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention. Only one in three women reports domestic violence, and even then police don’t always make a report of their own, she said.
Other legislative proposals include:
– Funding for crisis centers in Allegany and Harford counties. – A system of Family Courts proposed by Del. Kenneth Montague, D-Baltimore, that would make it easier for judges who hear domestic violence cases to keep track of a victim’s other legal affairs. -30-