Neanderthals in the House

March 24, 1994

The House Judiciary Committee has never been known for enlightened thinking, particularly in social policy. But when the committee cut the heart out of domestic violence legislation this week, women members of the House of Delegates finally lost patience, letting fly with public criticism of their colleagues that carried an especially bitter tinge.

The bill was a top priority for a broad coalition of women's organizations ranging from liberal groups to women's business associations. But their concerns were no match for the criminal trial lawyers who dominate the committee, whose sympathies evidently lie more with their clients, present and future, than with any female constituents who face the terror of domestic abuse.

By the time the Judiciary Committee finished, the only significant provision left standing was one extending the period in which a woman can report abuse from two hours to 12 in order to trigger a warrantless arrest. They tossed out such basic provisions as a requirement that police officers interview victims of violence and issue a report, or that officers give victims written information on their legal rights and where they can seek help.

You may recall a similarly Neanderthal performance on the same committee earlier this session, when members had trouble with a bill intended to speed an unconscionably long legal process for 1,300 foster care children in Maryland who are waiting to be adopted. These paragons of social responsibility were appalled at the notion of terminating a man's parental rights if he vanished from his child's life for a year and could not be located. Never mind the child's needs -- where fatherhood is concerned, the committee's first priority was to protect tender male egos.

In another example, the committee killed legislation designed merely to bring the state into compliance with federal regulations on laws governing the reporting of child abuse and neglect. Currently, Maryland does not require the reporting of emotional abuse, also known as "mental injury," and it allows exemptions from child abuse and neglect charges that seriously compromise the rights of a child to medical care. As a result, Maryland will continue to forfeit about half a million dollars a year in federal funds.

The legislative process is never neat and pretty. But does it really have to be as unenlightened a spectacle as this?

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