Starting Oct. 1, Marylanders no longer need be shamed by the state's weak protection of women who are driven from their homes by abusive partners. Gov. William Donald Schaefer last week signed into law a bill strengthening Maryland's weak spousal abuse statute -- the worst in the nation at providing safeguards for battered women. But Maryland is still far behind many other states in this regard. And the sexist way in which the General Assembly dealt with the governor's original measure demonstrates that many of its members still have a lot to learn about this problem.
Despite overwhelming evidence that thousands of women are brutally beaten by their husbands every year, key legislators -- all males -- were reluctant to permit a lengthy extension beyond the current 30 days that judges may now issue orders protecting spouses from further assaults or from being driven from their homes. The governor had proposed a one-year protection order; it was diluted almost by half. Fears that men would unfairly lose their homes -- even if the abused woman was only a bar pickup, in the imagination of one senator -- forced compromise after compromise to get the legislation passed. But the legislature grudgingly extended protective orders to cover live-in partners as well as husbands.
The lesson that has still not penetrated these closed minds is that domestic violence is not a battle of the genders. Nor is it a marginal social problem. Seventy women were killed by husbands or partners in Maryland in 1990. There were an estimated 16,000 cases of spousal abuse that year, overwhelmingly with women as the victims.
But the problem is far broader than that. Directly or indirectly, children are also the victims of spouse-beatings. A man who batters his wife or partner often beats the children as well. Even if the children are not physically abused, the animalistic behavior leaves psychological scars that mar the rest of their lives. Wife-beaters and child-abusers often were victims themselves in childhood, perpetuating the problem into future generations.
Recent studies here have found that domestic violence breeds other social ills. It is a substantial contributor to homelessness, accounting for up to one-third of those seeking emergency shelter in Maryland. It also creates circumstances that lead children into crime, further raising the social cost of neglecting this form of brutality. The basic equity of offering protection to women who have no other defenses fully justifies further strengthening the domestic violence statue. The social consequences of wife-beating demand it.