What would you do if your spouse punched out your television? What if he (or she) threw a table across the room and it smashed to pieces against the wall in a fit of rage? Even if you weren’t touched during this episode of violence and intimidation, aren’t you a victim of it? Do you deserve protection?
By Maryland’s narrow definition of abuse, you may not. It virtually all cases, it will take more than destroyed property, incessant and harassing text messages, or even your abuser coming to your home uninvited to convince a judge that you deserve the protection of the state.
It seems we have a high standard of proof in Maryland for what constitutes domestic violence. It’s a high standard that nevertheless puts us in low company: the dwindling number of states that don’t recognize a wrecked TV or a destroyed room as an indicator of escalating abuse — a big hint that physical harm could be next. And now, with the legislative session just ended, those who represent the people of Maryland have declined to do anything about it.
This is not the first time the Maryland legislature has neglected to expand domestic violence laws. You might remember Amy Castillo, the Montgomery County woman who, in the middle of a custody dispute with her estranged husband, was denied a protective order due to the rigid standard of proof of domestic abuse. At a particularly volatile moment in their failed relationship, Ms. Castillo’s husband took their three children to a hotel in Baltimore and drowned them. It was a sickening headline across the country, and it cried out for some measure to be taken to try to stop it from ever happening again. But even the wrenching testimony of Amy Castillo would not convince the legislature that changes to Maryland’s domestic violence laws are overdue.
That was just over a year ago. Fast forward to 2011, and little has changed. During the just-past session, the House and Senate considered legislation that would have permitted domestic violence victims to obtain a protective order from their abuser for more forms of abuse than those that are strictly physical. The bills cited trespassing, harassment and malicious destruction of property as forms of abuse in which victims of domestic violence could seek protection. They didn’t even get out of committee. If the legislation had passed, Maryland would have joined 27 states and the District of Columbia in having a more inclusive definition of abuse within their protective order statutes. Yes, it would still be difficult to obtain a protective order under Maryland’s stringent standard of proof, but the expanded definition could help more domestic violence victims (disproportionately women) seek protection.
As a student attorney in the University of Baltimore Family Law Clinic, I saw firsthand how Maryland’s limited definition of abuse makes it difficult for victims of domestic violence to obtain protective orders. I will not forget my time representing a woman whose husband, in a fit of rage against her, punched a hole in their 50-inch television. Then, with his knuckles still bloody, he threw an end table across the living room, shattering the table and causing damage to the wall.
This man never physically harmed my client. But he frequently destroyed their personal property as a way to intimidate and instill fear in her. Believe me, it worked. Still, it was nearly impossible to obtain a protective order because he had never hit her.
Unfortunately, my client is not an exception. Many abusers pride themselves on never touching their victims and employ other methods of abuse to intimidate and control. Maryland’s failure to recognize this as abuse is a national disgrace.
Watching the legislation fail this year, I had to ask: What will it take? Does every lawmaker have to stand in a wrecked room before they can grasp what’s going on? Who is really being protected by our state’s domestic violence law?
Another year has gone by, and Maryland has failed to take needed steps to protect victims of domestic violence. I want to believe that it will change, but a busted TV and a splintered table leave me thinking, and feeling, otherwise.
Naomi Sternlicht is a recent graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law.