Yesterday, a new domestic violence law went into effect in Alabama. The changes provide greater privacy to victims filing protection orders, and expand the definition of abuse to include a wider range of relationships — namely, dating relationships.
Changes to Alabama’s abuse protection law will now cover more people when it comes to domestic violence.
Before the new changes went into effect Thursday, there must have been a connection by marriage, a child being involved in the relationship, a common-law marriage, or the abuse include a former household member in order to file a protection order.
Now, the law includes people who have been dating for at least six months.
Kelly’s Rainbow Executive Director Carolyn Crump said she thinks the changes are for the better.
“I think [the law] had gotten so broad it was losing its effectiveness,” Crump said. “If we have it down to intimate, partner relationships, I think it can be more effective this way.”
The law also changes the age at which a victim can file a protection order from 19 to 18 and removes the victim’s contact information from court documents to keep the abuser from being able to track the victim down.
I want to celebrate this achievement, I really do. And I do offer my very sincere congratulations to those who worked hard to get the law this far. But apparently I’m feeling a lot less optimistic than I was yesterday, because my most prominent reaction to this news is: That’s it?
For those who will be directly impacted by the law, who will be able to file for protective orders where they weren’t able to before, it is of course an awful lot. But the problem is that it still leaves far too many victims of abuse out in the cold. Specifically, while allowing 18-year-olds to file for protective orders, under the new law minors still have no recourse. And while including dating relationships without cohabitation or children in the law is vital, it’s also way overdue and not nearly enough. After all, the rules includes a restriction stating that a couple must have been dating for at least 6 months before anything can be done.
And what the hell kind of protection is that? It’s well and good for people who have been in a relationship with their abuser for some time, but a victim should never have to keep seeing hir abuser until some arbitrary timing benchmark has been met for hir to have support in getting out of the relationship.
Here are the facts: little instances of abuse start early on. And from there on out, those little instances tend to progress pretty quickly into bigger ones. While hardly universal among abusive relationships, it’s not even remotely unusual for abuse to be occurring six months in. In fact, I’d say that among abusive relationships, it’s incredibly common. And while I honestly have no idea how common it is for someone to try to escape an abusive relationship that early on, it should certainly be the absolute last thing our laws are discouraging. And if someone leaving an abusive relationship early on needs a protective order, they need a fucking protective order. Four months versus six months doesn’t mean a whole lot when it’s your safety on the line.
I see absolutely no reason whatsoever to refuse to allow minors to obtain protective orders, as well as to set the relationship benchmark at a minimum of six months dating. The only “official” reason I can surmise is a bogus concern that people will abuse the law with situations that don’t actually require protective orders. But I say that in the highly unusual situation that someone is seeking a protective order after seeing someone for only a week, some really terrifying things are probably going on. To suggest otherwise is to fall back on the old “bitches lie” meme that says intimate partner violence victims are inherently untrustworthy. It’s to give into the fear that poor innocent men will be punished (by not being allowed to contact someone they apparently don’t even want to contact?). It’s to perpetuate the abhorrent, punitive notion that even if a couple assholes were wasting everyone’s time with petty, non-abusive disagreements, keeping them out of the system is more important than letting in people who desperately and legitimately need help.
Which means that the only real reason for these restrictions is to police what really counts as a relationship, and what really counts as violence. It’s about the state having further control over deciding which romantic and intimate partnerships are valid and legitimate. It’s about the state having control over whether it really matters that you’re receiving harassing phone calls, being hit, and/or being raped. It’s definitely not about protecting victims or the community — in fact, it only serves to take away what little power victims have left.
Through all of this outrage at Alabama, though, I thought it might be a good idea to find out if their new law is really so abnormal. What if Alabama is just putting itself in line with what other states are already doing? To at least a certain extent, it sadly looks like they are.
According to the Breaking the Cycle 2010 State Dating Violence Law Report Card (pdf), until this new law was passed, Alabama was among 8 states[1. The others are Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Virginia.] that did not allow victims in dating relationships to file protective orders. They don’t, however, explain how other states define a dating relationship, and whether they also include dating length requirements[2. I also couldn’t find that information elsewhere, but if you’ve got it, please let me know]. Further, only nine states and the District of Columbia allow minors to file protective orders on their own behalf, and nine states — including Alabama, and seemingly still so — don’t allow minors to file protective orders at all.
Even more really disturbing details from the report below:
Minors have access to protection orders (eligibility as a minor and/or in a dating relationship) in forty-five states and the District of Columbia. Missouri is the only state that explicitly prohibits minors from accessing protection orders, although a person is considered an adult at age. Four states, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio and Wyoming do not specify whether minors are able to access protection orders.
Minors’ Ability to Petition
Although minors may have access to protection orders, state laws vary as to whether minors can petition for orders on their own behalf. Only nine states and the District of Columbia explicitly allow minors to petition on their own behalf: California, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah and Washington. While most states do not specify whether minors can petition for protection orders on their own behalf, nine states prohibit all minors from petitioning: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, New Jersey, Texas and Wisconsin.
Protection Orders against Minor Abusers
Fifteen states allow petitions for protection orders to be filed against minor abusers. While a majority of states do not specify whether protection orders are available against minor abusers, five states prohibit protection orders against minors: Maryland11, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey and Oregon.
Restrictions for Same-Sex Relationships
Montana, North Carolina and South Carolina specifically offer protection only to individuals in opposite-sex relationships. Louisiana law specifies that to qualify for a domestic violence protection order as a cohabitant, the victim must be living with an abuser of the opposite sex. In Idaho, the text of the civil domestic violence law does not exclude same-sex couples; however, when the law was adopted, the Idaho Legislature stated that the law was intended to exclude same-sex couples.
In other words, Alabama’s new law only just puts their rules up to the general U.S. standard on some issues, and leaves them below that standard on others. Further, while the old law was abhorrent and this one remains painfully inadequate, they’re frighteningly really not so far behind as you might expect.
Of course, it’s also important to note in all of this that while ensuring that victims can simply obtain a protection order is important, the strategy is limited. Protection and restraining orders are notoriously difficult to enforce effectively. To what extent they can be enforced, police too frequently ignore violations and courts too frequently refuse to act. Among those who are likely to have protection orders go unenforced, some are particularly vulnerable, including but not limited to women of color (unless enforcement is seen as an excuse to lock up another man of color), low-income victims, trans* folks, and people experiencing abuse in same-sex relationships (if they can obtain protective orders at all). Not to mention that for far too many, having technical access to assistance from law enforcement doesn’t make contact with law enforcement safe.
Which is all to say the usual. A small victory has been won. The safety of some people has been disregarded and/or sacrificed in order to get there. And so, so much more is still desperately needed.