Maryland lawmakers pass new bills to help victims of domestic violence

Maryland lawmakers have passed three bills that will make it easier for victims of domestic violence to protect themselves and their children.

Domestic violence is a more common issue than many people in Catonsville realize, affecting as many as 1.3 million U.S. women each year, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In 2010, 17,931 cases of domestic violence were reported in Maryland, according to the Governor's Office of Crime Control & Prevention.

Sadly, even when these victims come forward, it can be difficult for them to obtain needed protection. Fortunately, Maryland lawmakers recently passed three bills that will make it easier for victims to seek help and stay safe.

Enhanced protection for victims

Governor Martin O'Malley signed the bills in April as part of an initiative to reduce violence against women and children by 25 percent by 2018, according to a press release from the Governor's Office. The laws change the standards or proof and potential long-term consequences in domestic violence cases.

Under the new laws, domestic violence victims only need to show a "preponderance of evidence" to obtain final protective orders. Before the bills were signed, Maryland was the only state to require that victims provide "clear and convincing" evidence, which is a stricter standard of proof. People found guilty of committing violent offenses in front of children can now be sentenced more harshly. Additionally, victims can seek final protective orders against offenders convicted of second-degree assault, which is a common charge in domestic violence cases.

This last change offers significant benefits for victims, since final protective orders have more power than temporary orders. According to the Maryland Courts website, a temporary protective order can make an abuser cease contact and leave a shared home. A temporary protective order can also establish temporary custody of any children. A final order, however, can require the abuser to do the following things:

  • Pay emergency maintenance.
  • Pay any court or filing expenses associated with the charges.
  • Give up all firearms and go to counseling.
  • Observe temporary child custody orders, which give the victim custody but may allow the abuser temporary visitation.

For spouses who have fallen victim to domestic violence, a protective order can settle many of the same issues that would be addressed through a divorce settlement. However, in most cases, spouses still benefit from seeking a divorce to ensure that property is divided fairly and permanent maintenance is awarded.

Domestic violence and divorce

Victims of domestic violence may be able to use excessively vicious conduct as grounds for divorce, instead of observing Maryland's 12-month waiting period, according to the Maryland Courts website. A pattern of domestic violence or a single incident intended to cause serious harm can constitute vicious conduct.

When a victim and abuser have children together, the court must find the custody arrangement that is in the best interest of the children. It can be beneficial for victims to have a final protective order, rather than a temporary one, because a final order legally must be considered when custody is awarded. The court may require the abuser to undergo a mental evaluation or counseling before making a custody decision. Often, parents with outstanding orders against them may receive limited custody - for example, supervised visitation - or no custody.

Under the new laws, it should be easier for victims to prove violence occurred, seek a divorce immediately and request that the abuser receive curtailed custody and visitation rights. However, getting help for domestic violence remains a complicated process. It is crucial that anyone facing this situation works with an attorney to ensure personal protection and find the best arrangement for any children involved.

Keywords: domestic violence, divorce, custody