ANNAPOLIS -- About half the battered women who seek shelter at Baltimore's House of Ruth can't get court orders to protect them because they're not married to their abusers.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer wants to change that this year with a bill giving judges more power to help battered women. It would allow women to seek protection from ex-husbands or men with whom they live -- or once lived.
Judges currently use protective orders to temporarily separate warring parties in a domestic dispute. The judge can require the abuser to stay away from the victim and move out of their home.
But Maryland's law -- which officials call one of the most restrictive in the nation -- applies only to married women living with their husbands, or single women living with the father of their child.
"There are a lot of people out there living in non-traditional-type arrangements," said Bonnie A. Kirkland, the governor's deputy legislative officer. The governor's bill "brings Maryland more into the 20th century," she said.
"Half of all our clients are unmarried to their abusers or married but separated," said Judith Wolfer, legal services director at the House of Ruth, a Baltimore shelter for battered women. "This bill is critical for victims because it gives them relief when the abuse starts."
The bill would apply to battered men, but its proponents could not provide any statistics on the number of men abused by wives or girlfriends in Maryland.
One-third of the women who actually sought protective orders against their partners during the first half of 1991 couldn't get them because they didn't meet Maryland's narrow criteria, Ms. Kirkland said. In Baltimore County, 23 percent were denied.
The administration bill also would extend the maximum length of an order from 30 days to one year, to provide a longer cooling off period for the couple, she said.
The legislation would give judges a broader menu of options to choose from to help the victim and her children. They include awarding the victim temporary financial support and ordering the abuser to stay away from the victim's school or workplace, and providing temporary visitation rights with the couple's children under the condition that abuse not continue.
The bill also would make it easier for a woman to prove she has been abused. Abusers would continue to face criminal charges for violating protective orders.
"All of the studies show that when there are clear consequences that are negative for men who abuse their partners, then the abuse stops," Ms. Wolfer said.