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.
"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.
The two went back and forth.
"Why risk losing a woman's life?" Gutierrez asked.
"This is like Hillary versus Obama," Carter told her as they continued. "There's this long-standing women's movement that fought for all its rights, and they don't want to give any ground."
In the past 20 years, big changes have been made in laws intended to combat domestic violence, which was once often dismissed by law enforcement as relationship issues. Courts and police are now far more likely to recognize the danger to women posed by frequently abusive spouses.
Victims can get emergency temporary orders requiring an accused abuser to stay away for up to seven days, even before the suspect has a chance to tell his side of the story.
A final protective order, issued by a judge after a hearing where both sides present evidence, was once available for a maximum for 30 days. It can now be issued for up to a year, and the legislature is considering a measure this year allowing orders in some cases to be extended to two years.
Cynthia Lifson, legislative counsel for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, said the increasing number of women in the legislature over the past two decades is partly responsible for such changes.
"It's always helpful to have women in elected positions," she said. "Their life experiences are different than men in elected office."
For that reason, advocates on domestic violence issues particularly focus their lobbying efforts on the 59 women in the House and Senate. And it can be especially touchy for women to go against their advice.
"You want to look at the issues based on the merits," said Del. Gerron S. Levi (D-Prince George's), who backed the records bill last week. "But as a woman, you never want to be against the women's caucus. It makes it very difficult."
The records bill was revived last week and returned to committee for possible amendments, meaning debate will continue. A similar split has emerged over a separate measure scheduled for debate this week that would make it easier for victims of domestic violence to get handgun permits. Many members of the women's caucus in the legislature say the measure would send the dangerous message that guns can be used to solve domestic violence. Other women say victims who want a gun to protect themselves should be able to get one.
This week, the House will debate bills supported by victims and Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) that would make it easier to take firearms from suspected abusers. There has been more unity over these measures.
Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George's) said her first impulse was to oppose the bill about expunging records and the proposal that would make it easier for victims to get handguns. The measure would direct the state police to take domestic protective orders into account when deciding whether to grant permits.
Then, she said, she spoke to women who support the measures on the Judiciary Committee, which delved deeply into both issues, and to her husband, Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey. She said she decided that neither measure would hurt victims and supports both.
Still, as the debate unfolded, Ivey said she couldn't help but feel the stare of one of the advocates, seated in the House gallery.
"You feel a little guilty voting against these people who have the interest of victims at heart," she said.
Del. Karen S. Montgomery (D-Montgomery), president of the women's caucus, said she was disappointed that the group did not stand together against the records bill. But, she said, the split might be an important symbol of change.
"I think it's a sign of social progress," she said. "Women do feel free to argue."