Md. Domestic Violence Bill Creates Awkward Divide Among Some Female Delegates

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009

A controversial domestic violence measure that sparked an emotional debate on the floor of the Maryland House of Delegates last week has created an uncomfortable divide among some women in the legislature, particularly awkward because abuse issues have long been considered a unifying cause for female lawmakers.

Almost a third of the members of the General Assembly are women, one of the highest percentages among state legislatures in the country. But leading female delegates failed to convince many of their colleagues that the bill, which would allow records in some unproven domestic abuse cases to be expunged, could be harmful to domestic violence victims, most of whom are women.

Although 29 joined 40 male colleagues in a successful effort to defeat the bill, 15 women voted for the measure, saying it could help those falsely accused of abuse clear their records.

"I was really shocked," said Del. C. Sue Hecht (D-Frederick), who spent 13 years working for a support service for domestic abuse victims in Frederick County and urged women to join her in opposition. "It showed you can't take for granted your natural allies."

Hecht and others say many requests for protective orders are dismissed because victims are intimidated by their abusers and fail to follow through in court. Eliminating the public record of such denied or dismissed requests could erase a record of abuse, they say.

But other women say dismissed protective orders can be unfairly used to deny people jobs or housing. They worry about the stigma of an unproven abuse accusation in a world where the Internet has increased access to public records. Innocent people should be able to clear their records, they said.

"It is a good common-sense measure, and I don't know why anyone would oppose it," Del. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore) said last week.

As Carter stood explaining her position in the lobby of the House Office Building, Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery) strolled by.

"I'm feeling some wrath from my friends -- my fellow felines," Carter said, laughingly directing the comment at Gutierrez, who had voted to kill the bill.

Gutierrez stopped.

"My Latino women, they need to be encouraged to step up," Gutierrez said. She had constituents who were hesitant to leave abusive partners and could be intimidated into dropping their requests for protective orders, she said. "This is against them."

"It would still be accessible to a judge -- why do I need to know about it?" Carter responded.

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