ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — The Maryland House on Thursday voted in favor of a bill that repeals language in Maryland’s Family Law prohibiting decisions in domestic violence proceedings from being admitted as evidence in divorce court. The bill passed with no dissenting votes.
Current Maryland law states that divorce courts cannot consider decisions or orders made in district or circuit courts when hearing divorce proceedings.
Divorce courts can consider abuse as a reason for divorce, but not protective orders, which are given in cases of physical abuse such as rape and assault, or stalking.
“Ignoring domestic violence history ignores the safety of survivors,” said Malore Dusenbery from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “The most dangerous time for survivors is when they are trying to leave the relationship.”
Abusers can be manipulative of survivors in court, but under the bill, a judge would be able to use a history of protective orders when making a decision in divorce proceedings, Dusenbery said.
“This bill repeals language that just isn’t necessary or relevant,” Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, who is the bill’s sponsor in the House of Delegates, said Feb. 2 in a phone call with Maryland’s Capital News Service. “When the law was written there was concern that protective orders would be used as grounds for divorce, and we’ve moved away from that.”
A matching bill in the Senate received a hearing at the Judicial Proceedings Committee in February, but has not been voted out of the committee.
Protective orders were expanded in 1992 to include more people who could seek an order and extend the duration of the protective order. Final protective orders are generally issued for up to 12 months or, in some cases, two years, an increase from the earlier maximum of 30 days. Legislators at the time were concerned that seeking a protective order would be a quick or easy way to get a divorce.
Maryland divorce law specifies that certain conditions have to be met before a full divorce is granted. Conditions include a separation of 12 months, cruelty or excessively vicious conduct.
Dumais added that judges in divorce court likely already have information about protective orders in court documents about individuals involved in divorce proceedings but they can’t use those orders as evidence.
“I’m glad to see this bill. There are circumstances of abuse that may not be evident at the time of the divorce,” said Melynda Clarke, an advocate with the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center at Dimensions Health Care.
Clarke said she had seen many cases where a victim of domestic violence had been killed by their abuser, and friends or family who knew the abuser but did not know the abuse was going on.
“This (current) law is an unnecessary restriction on a court’s ability to consider the circumstances of an individual case and the family involved,” according to Executive Director and Council for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault Lisae Jordan, in written testimony.
“Protective orders are also frequently relevant and admitted into evidence to address other issues in a case, including custody and visitation … and injunctions,” Jordan said.
Individuals who meet relationship requirements outlined in family law can petition a court to get a protective order from an abuser. The courts issue temporary and final protective orders.
The orders require abusers to stop abusing, contacting or entering the home of the individual or individuals the order protects.
A final protective order can also set up temporary visitation, immediately after the order is issued, if the individuals have children.
The final order also requires that the defendant surrender to police any guns they might have for the time that the order is in place. Final orders are generally in place for a maximum of 12 months, according to a state document. The orders can be renewed and if certain conditions are met the orders can last longer, including an indefinite amount of time.
Temporary orders are issued for a maximum of seven days before a hearing for the final order is held. They prohibit contact between individuals and can be put into place without a full court hearing.