Battered spouses hope for speedier divorces Two bills gain backing, but one vexes advocates

March 30, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

After 23 years, after never telling another soul, Charlene Barto finally admitted the truth.

She confided in her priest that her husband beat her. With the priest's help, she found the courage to leave him -- only to have to survive another ordeal: an emotionally and financially exhausting wait to get divorced.

Her long path toward ending a lifetime of denial and starting anew is one Barto hopes will be shortened for other battered spouses under legislation that has gained broad support in the Maryland General Assembly.

"When someone finally gets the strength to end a relationship like I was in," Barto said, "it should be over much faster."

Maryland's divorce laws, rooted in the state's Roman Catholic tradition, are among the more restrictive in the nation.

The state has a two-tier system of "limited" divorce -- a legal separation that does not dissolve the marital ties -- which precedes an "absolute," or final divorce. Couples must separate for one year before they can seek an absolute divorce in almost all instances except adultery.

Women's advocates, health officials and some state lawmakers have pushed for three years to extend the same exemption to victims of marital abuse.

This year, for the first time, both the House and Senate have endorsed measures to abolish the one-year wait in abuse cases. However, a key difference between the two versions makes their final passage uncertain.

A Senate committee tacked on an amendment that stipulates that judges could require couples to make good-faith attempts to reconcile before granting a divorce. Disappointed advocates, including Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, are lobbying heavily to get the provision removed in conference committee.

"That's a big obstacle," Townsend said. "We think that would aggravate an already dangerous situation for women. There are many judges who still do not understand the dynamics of a violent relationship."

In a state that allows couples to divorce on the spot if a spouse is unfaithful, many people have been perplexed by the legislature's resistance to giving battered women the same privilege.

"What is a waiting period supposed to accomplish?" said a 29-year-old Baltimore woman, who asked that her name not be used for fear of reprisal from her estranged husband. "Is the woman supposed to go back into the home and reconcile with the person who has attacked her multiple times over many years?"

Violence and adultery

Cynthia L. Golomb, a lawyer with the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, said: "I don't get it. You certainly would think this is the same injury to a marriage as adultery."

A few conservative lawmakers have argued that women whose husbands may have lost their temper and shouted, but not beaten them, could claim abuse to immediately seek a divorce.

To assuage their concerns, after a more vaguely worded proposal failed last year, sponsors of both bills defined abuse as "excessively vicious conduct." Supporters also emphasized the change would merely let abused women file immediately for divorce; the legal proceedings still could last more than a year.

But even some moderate lawmakers have expressed reservations that one change in the divorce law could lead to another. They fear Maryland will wind up with the no-fault laws -- and higher divorce rates -- of other states.

"There could be some situations, some relationships, that could be salvaged," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat. He agrees battered women should have the right to get divorced more quickly. But he also believes some couples would benefit from court-ordered counseling.

Domestic violence experts, however, say counseling is no sure remedy in a separation period that can be dangerous and even deadly for abused women.

Research shows that women are three times more likely to be beaten while separated than after a divorce. The reason is that abusers, who lash out when they fear losing control, become agitated and try to reassert themselves.

"We see these cases all the time," said Leigh Vinocur, an emergency room doctor who has treated women with bruises and broken limbs at Sinai, Franklin Square and Mercy hospitals in Baltimore. "The most vulnerable period is the separation. After the finality of a divorce sinks in, the batterer moves on."

In late January, Vera Case, a 31-year-old veterinary technician, was shot to death by her estranged husband while she slept in her new home in western Howard County.

That day, Dwight E. Case, 44, had learned of his wife's appointment with a Columbia lawyer to discuss a legal separation. After killing Vera, Case took his own life in his car with what police said was the same gun.

They were remembered the next month at a solemn vigil in Annapolis. Candles were lighted for the women, men and children killed in episodes of family violence; there had been 79 in Maryland the previous year.

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