New Laws Aim to Aid Battered Women
Advocacy groups applaud changes in a number of states
BOSTON — MASSACHUSETTS criminal justice and human service officials recently announced new guidelines for police when handling domestic abuse cases.Under the guidelines, part of the state's new domestic abuse prevention law, police are given greater power in making arrests in such cases. They also are mandated to make an arrest if they find probable cause that a restraining order has been violated. "These new guidelines send a clear, strong message that domestic violence is a crime," said Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci in a recent press conference. "For too long," said the lieutenant governor, "we've allowed public policy to focus on the perpetrators of domestic violence.... I think it's time we focused on the victims." In the last two months, he said, eight battered women have died in the state. The new law, passed last December, is intended to strengthen protection of abuse victims through better coordination between police, the courts, and human service providers. Human services and women's advocacy groups applaud the new procedures. Prior to the new law's enactment, police would either make arrests at their own discretion or when requested to do so by the victim. According to Rai Kowal, deputy director of Massachusetts Committee on Criminal Justice, police officers often handled domestic abuse cases like social workers mediating a family dispute, and were hesitant to make arrests unless requested to do so. For example, Ms. Kowal says, instead of arresting an attacker a police officer might simply order the attacker to leave the premises or tell him to take a walk around the block to cool off. "This is really a big step forward," Kowal says. "This takes a lot of the burden [for requesting an arrest] off the victim's shoulders." Approximately 20 states have mandatory arrest laws similar to the new Massachusetts statute, which provides that arrests can be made upon violation of a restraining order, says Joan Zorza, senior attorney for the National Battered Womens' Law Project in New York. Other states, including Connecticut, have even stricter laws that mandate arrests when there is probable cause that a crime has been committed - regardless of whether a court has issued a protection order. Such laws can be problematic, says Ms. Zorza, when police officers make so-called "dual arrests" or when both the attacker and victim are arrested. In some cases, she says, victims of abuse can be arrested and punished for merely acting in self defense. "What happens in that situation is the direct opposite of what's intended," says Anne Menard, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "It's a process that has victims going through a re-victimization process. ... Connecticut is still struggling with this." Passage of Connecticut's comprehensive domestic abuse law in 1986 was prompted by a landmark lawsuit filed by a battered woman who sued the Torrington, Conn., police department for failing to answer her calls for help. She was awarded $1.9 million in a 1985 federal court settlement. Connecticut's new law also provides a speeded-up court process for certain domestic abuse cases, requires police to provide abuse victims with information on victim shelter programs, and establishes victim advocate services in courts. In Massachusetts, women's shelter groups are supportive of the state's new police guidelines. But some think arresting more offenders isn't the only answer. Joan Stiles, education coordinator for Massachusetts Coalition for Battered Women Service Groups, says police need better training and offenders need stricter punishments. "Traditionally, it has been very hard to see batterers incarcerated," she says. "We are ultimately going to have to sanction people who refuse treatment or who are inappropriate for treatment." Other provisions in the state's new police guidelines include: * Former in-laws or those in dating relationships with the victim may now be arrested under the new law. * In the event of an arrest, police are encouraged to confiscate firearms. * Police will determine if there has been any child abuse. * Police must notify victims that an attacker may be released on bail and that the victim can then request a protection order. * Police officers will not be found liable if they made an arrest based on probable cause. * Local police departments can draw up their own guidelines in accord with the new abuse-prevention act, subject to state approval.