When violence at home threatens household members -- most often women and children -- the first remedy is a civil order of protection, a court decree requiring that an abusive person stay away for a specified period of time. Strong, well-enforced protective orders can often prevent further abuse.
Until 1992, however, Maryland's law governing civil protective orders was one of the weakest in the nation. Among other restrictions, orders could remain in effect for only 30 days and there was no threat of arrest for violations. That year, the General Assembly significantly strengthened the law.
The new law expanded the definition of abuse as well as the pool of people eligible for relief. It also lengthened the maximum time for protection to 200 days and allowed the court to require that the abuser stay away not just from the petitioner's home, but also her school, place of work or temporary residence. Violations now result in arrest.
The results of these changes were soon apparents. In the three months after the law went into effect on Oct. 1, 1992, there was a 66 percent increase in the number of cases filed, as compared to the comparable period in 1991. One sobering finding was that in 70 percent of these cases, children were living in the home, presumably witnessing the violence.
But Maryland's great step forward in civil law was by no means a comprehensive solution to domestic violence. The surge of cases put stress on other parts of the legal system. For instance, it presented law-enforcement officials with many more orders to serve, but it did not provide more resources to help them accomplish the task. And, in fact, the difficulty in serving the orders underscores a dangerous loophole in the law.
A temporary protection order is granted for seven days, until TC court hearing can be held. But if the alleged abuser doesn't receive notification of the hearing during those seven days, the court can't proceed. If a victim appears for a hearing four consecutive times and the abuser has still not been served notice, the protective order expires. That's a strong incentive to avoid the process server for a few crucial weeks. The law needs to be strengthened to allow a longer period for the temporary order and to allow other forms of sending due notice of the hearing, such as publication in a newspaper or posting at the court house.
Another way to strengthen protection is to remove the 200-day limit. Women in other states have found that it can take years to establish their safety. Protection orders are a first line of defense for victims of domestic violence. They are not always effective, but they can help reduce abuse and the need for costly prosecutions. By refusing to rest on its laurels, the General Assembly can make protection orders more effective by fine-tuning the 1992 law.
Tomorrow: Mandatory arrest