Local state lawmaker seeks more protection for domestic-violence victims

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Dec. 4—Throughout his career in law enforcement, including his time as Joplin police chief, Missouri lawmaker Lane Roberts says he would often see domestic violence perpetrators abuse the courts to manipulate and intimidate their victims.

Rep. Roberts, R-Joplin, is hoping to close the loopholes through pre-filed legislation that would establish additional protections for assault victims and eliminate avenues of exploitation. Roberts was Joplin police chief from 2007 to 2014. He also previously served as police chief in Oregon and Washington state cities.

The effort, he said, is his effort to fix things that he has known for some time are wrong. “These are things that I've been dealing with for several decades. Even back in the early days, I knew that abusers were taking advantage, that victims were often on the receiving end, and the law didn't do all it really could to protect them.”

In trying to ensure due process, Roberts said, the law can unintentionally re-victimize the victim. For example, having to face your abuser in court in order to receive a protection order year after year can be very traumatic.

“Over the years, I've become more detail oriented, wondering what we could've done,” said Roberts. “Previously, I had to explain to some victims why we couldn't do that very thing because the law didn't make provisions for it. That's the nature of law. You can or you can't. There's no gray area. What we're looking at here is an opportunity for me to fix, amend or create protections for things that have loopholes, things that could be avoided or things that were not provided by the law.”

Roberts said many survivors have to come up with tactical plans just to maneuver in and out of the courthouse to evade their abusers. Domestic violence centers in the region work with survivors on safety plans, maintaining control and advocating for justice. Officials with the two nearby shelters — Lafayette House and Safehouse Crisis Center — are lauding Roberts' efforts to advocate for domestic violence survivors.

Brooke Powell, executive director of Safehouse Crisis Center in Pittsburg, Kansas, said abusers are highly manipulative and use the power of intimidation to gain control.

“Abusers know what they're doing,” said Powell. “They're very good at their craft. I know from experience that when we go to court with the victim for the protection order hearing, the perpetrator will then say, 'I didn't get that paperwork. I wasn't served. I didn't know.' It pushes everything back, and it is deflating for the victim because they're putting their all in trying to stay safe.”

Susan Hickam, executive director of Lafayette House in Joplin, said if abusers are willing to hurt the person that they love, then they don't care about how they treat a court system, a law enforcement officer or anyone else.

“They're going to do everything they possibly can to get the results that they want, and this goes even with the courts,” she said. “To find loopholes within any court proceeding or any language of law, it's part of what they do because it's what they practice in their everyday life.”

Elements of the bill

A section in the bill would allow victims to testify on camera instead of going to court in-person, which Powell described as a “game-changer” for victims that may encourage others to come forward against their attackers. The online method prevents the abuser from knowing when and where a victim will be.

“With a video conference, you're eliminating that potential for close contact,” said Hickam. “Furthermore, when we are present for court, you're putting an additional risk when a victim is coming into the courtroom and leaving the courtroom because what we do know about abusers is the potential for stalking occurs.”

Other provisions in the measure would prevent the perpetrator from pleading ignorance or failing to appear after receiving notice from the court for a protection order. If a protection order is properly served and the respondent fails to appear in court on the day of the hearing, they're (still) responsible for having knowledge of any conditions contained in the judgment.

“When a respondent is served a notice, that serves to notify them of any conditions that come from that, and we're going to assume that he knows about it,” said Roberts. “Right now, sometimes folks will plead ignorance, 'I don't know. I wasn't there for the hearing.' This says, if you get the notice, then you know there's going to be conditions that are your responsibility.”

Another element in the bill would protect personal information by not disclosing the home or workplace addresses of the victims and their witnesses when testifying in court, unless it's found necessary by the court.

“The victims or family members do not have to divulge their addresses or places of work, as a matter of public record, and that's obviously for their own safety,” said Roberts.

The measure, House Bill 1699, also may hold the perpetrator responsible for attorney's fees throughout and after judgment.

“Predominantly, this is an issue where a woman has to get help, and it gets too costly,” Roberts said. “The respondent doesn't want to pay and finds ways to duck out of it. This essentially says that whatever the judge says he's going to pay, he's going to pay, and it will be throughout the proceedings, not just for a certain portion of it.”

The remaining sections of the bill, like having the respondent pay $1,000 to a local domestic violence shelter or not getting offered a plea bargain in a domestic violence case, are currently under review and may be amended.

“The contents of this bill are too important to sacrifice it to one or two specific elements,” said Roberts. “If necessary, I will amend or remove those elements to be sure the bill has a good chance of passing.”

Roberts successfully proposed HB 292 during the 2021 legislative session to tighten the state's stalking laws, which allows for orders of protection to be extended for up to a lifetime; includes pets in protection orders; and modifies the definition of “stalking” to include the use of technology such as social media, GPS or the use of third parties. These modifications became law in June.

Hickam said no matter what any law says, it's important to constantly look at how language is written and update any measures to meet today's standards.

“It's because as things change within our daily lives, we need to always be looking at those things,” she said. “We need to be willing to go forth and make those changes to our laws consistently, so that we're addressing the needs of here and now.”

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