ANNAPOLIS – A bill brought before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Tuesday would make abuse one of two reasons a person could file for divorce in the state without a waiting period.
“I think the message we [currently] give victims is that they should stay in an abusive relationship,” said Dorothy Lennig of the House of Ruth, a program for domestic violence victims headquartered in Baltimore. “What we need to do is make the law protect the victims.”
Maryland currently uses stricter standards to grant divorces than the majority of the other 50 states. The law allows for immediate filing for divorce only on the grounds of adultery.
“On all other cases of divorce, you have to wait a year and sometimes two,” Lennig said.
Forty-three states allow victims of domestic violence to file for divorce immediately after the abuse occurs, said Cynthia Golumb of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.
Golumb agreed that adultery is a betrayal and said no one should be forced to remain married to one who breaks that trust. But she contended that abuse is not simply an annoyance, but another “violation of the sacred trust between husband and wife.”
Opponents have told Golumb that the bill would make divorce too easy and tear marriages and families apart. She argued the presence of abuse — not the legislation — would end the marriages.
A representative of the Maryland Catholic Conference and Sen. Leo Green, D-Prince George’s, expressed concern over the definition of abuse.
“Physical abuse in the marriage is the mother of all crimes as far as I’m concerned,” Green said. But he said the definition in the bill is broad and he is concerned marriages that could be saved through mediation will end too soon.
Green said he hoped to work with the bill’s sponsors to fine-tune the definition.
Lennig said allowing a swifter divorce in the case of abuse is importance because until divorces become official, abusers feel their spouses are still their property.
“What I find is that when the victim leaves her batterer is probably the most dangerous time for her,” Lennig said. “Batterers feel they have the right to control their spouses and that they can use physical violence to do so.”
Lennig said the children of these relationships also need to get out. They are more likely to be abused, become abusers themselves, and have higher occurrences of drug use, teen pregnancy and school problems.
The measure is part of a five-bill package sponsored by Sen. Dolores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore, and originating from the Maryland Family Violence Council.
The council, formed by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., spent the last year examining ways to help domestic violence victims.
Another of the five bills would specify that protective orders forbidding abusive spouses from entering their partners’ residences include the yards and outbuildings, such as garages and barns.
“Entering the residence often means walking through the front door,” said Chief Judge Martha F. Rasin of the District Court of Maryland.
Rasin said many abusers like to push the current law to its limit, and she wants to set “a zone of safety which doesn’t allow these people hiding in the bushes, hiding behind dumpsters and peeping in windows.”
During her time in the Maryland court system, Rasin said she has seen examples of all those cases. -30-