Beefing up protective orders

January 02, 2007

Hardly a week goes by without news of a Maryland resident who has been murdered or seriously injured in an act of domestic violence where a protective order had been issued against the attacker. In a recent incident, police shot a 25-year-old Kent County man who had forced his way into the apartment of his girlfriend and held their toddler hostage.

Domestic violence is the No. 1 cause of physical injury suffered by women and, according to studies, requires more medical care for them than rape, muggings and car accidents combined. In many of these cases, protective orders - legal directives intended to restrict or even forbid contact between two individuals - had been signed by either a District Court commissioner or a judge. They are important tools to help prevent troubled relationships from turning worse through abuse, harassment and physical violence. But they're not cure-alls. A few tweaks to the law can reinforce their effectiveness.

The biggest weakness of the protective order is the false sense of security it gives some victims. A protective order only works if its conditions are obeyed by the person to whom it is issued. In extreme cases, someone who is willing to risk the consequences of maiming or killing another person is hardly deterred by a civil order that, if violated, carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail. Some abusers even get angrier - and more dangerous - when their partners seek protective orders against them. And that is why counselors wisely tell victims of domestic violence to make their own safety plans.

Maryland lawmakers and the courts have taken important strides in offering greater accessibility to protective orders. The most recent was requiring court commissioners to be available to review requests for interim protective orders around the clock.

But more needs to be done to give the law clout. A person who fails to show up for counseling, if required in a protective order, ought to face misdemeanor charges. And the law should make it easier for victims, who are currently required to meet a high standard of evidence, to prove their cases.

Educating victims about their role in protecting themselves is imperative. And their inclination to look over their shoulders should be encouraged. It is, after all, a matter of self-defense.

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