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The
Fatherhood

Coalition

Men trying to trace false abuse charges

Restraining orders are focus of attention

By Ian Donnis, TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF, Telegram & Gazette, September. 6, 1998


For Rosemarie Jackson, three false accusations of domestic violence a month were three too many.

The matter came up last year when Steven M. Basile, an activist divorced father from Gardner, sought Jackson's help in creating an information and referral service for men who are accused of battering women. At the time, Jackson was executive director of the Family Life Center, a private Christian counseling agency on Main Street in Fitchburg.

She thought Basile's unorthodox idea was worth exploring because, even if it's relatively rare, men are sometimes falsely accused in domestic violence cases.

"It's a difficult position to look at from an emotional perspective because, in truth, women are dying" from domestic violence, Jackson said.

"There's this need to protect women, from a police and legal standpoint to a service providers' standpoint. That does not mean that we have to turn our eyes away from any other injustice."

Jackson put the question to the northern Worcester County Domestic Violence Roundtable - a collection of police and advocates for battered women - of how often men are falsely accused of domestic abuse. She said the group responded by estimating that three such cases occur in northern Worcester County each month.

A monthly trio of false accusations of domestic abuse in the area "doesn't seem like a whole heck of a lot," said Jackson, who later left the Family Life Center for unrelated reasons. "But if you extrapolate that over the state, I think it's a number that should be looked at. If you were one of those three, you'd want someone to be on your side."

In the quiet confines of the legal library at Gardner District Court, two men pore over files illuminating the ugly details of domestic violence. The focus of the men's attention is the restraining order - the legal device introduced in 1978 and revised in the early 1990s to try to enhance the safety of victims of battering.

While far from a guarantee against harm, restraining orders can be sought for a range of desired outcomes, from stopping abusive behavior to removing an abuser from a shared home. The orders can be sought only by and against people in romantic, familial or roommate relationships.

For their part, the two men in the Gardner court, 42-year-old James M. Clements, of Fitchburg, and 62-year-old Ron E. Deyo, of Shirley, said they have seen cases in which men have been evicted from their homes, jailed and unable to see their children at times because of false claims of abuse. Motivated by their belief that such cases are more common than widely believed, Clements, Deyo and other divorced fathers are trying to document their case by analyzing the 416 restraining orders issued in Gardner District Court in 1997.

Advocates for battered women maintain that abuse of restraining orders is extremely rare. Jacqueline P. McEvilly, executive director of Leominster-based Battered Women's Resources, estimates that in her experience, 99 percent of requests for restraining orders are legitimate. But the question of how often restraining orders are misused has apparently never been studied, according to advocates for both divorced fathers and battered women.

"The problem now is we have all this anecdotal information," said Basile, a 36-year-old software engineer, who directs the North Central Massachusetts chapter of the Fatherhood Coalition.

"Until we go out there and get some hard facts right from the courthouse, we're not going to be able to get anyone concerned about this issue."

The examination of court records in Gardner started in December, eight months after Basile first requested access to the documents. A court official told him to seek permission from Samuel E. Zoll, chief justice of the state's district courts.

After a four-month delay, Zoll explained in a letter to Basile that most of the documents he sought were public records. Calm, well-spoken and methodical in making his points, Basile is a contrast with the stereotypical image held by some that divorced fathers are shrill cranks.

"In any organization, you're going to have different personalities," he said. "I don't think that can be avoided. The most crazy of these seem to get picked out by our opponents, and the message as a whole seems to be ignored, which is unfortunate."

Basile said misinformation about domestic violence has become prevalent. For example, he cited a Quincy District Court study which found that men who are served with restraining orders generally have lengthy criminal histories. The study was flawed, Basile said, since it counted complaints, rather than convictions.

Basile, who heads a chapter of Fatherhood Coalition with about 35 members, said he became an activist after an unjust probate court decision involving his two daughters. He declined to elaborate, he said, because he wanted to protect his daughters' privacy.

Jack Levin, a criminologist and sociologist at Northeastern University in Boston, said divorced fathers such as Basile are "fighting an uphill battle, because the court of public opinion is finally on the side of women."

After generations of gross shortcomings in protecting women from violence, Levin said, it's possible that American society has overcompensated in an attempt to correct the situation.

"At a time when finally women are seen as being victimized, men are informing us that they, too, have rights," he said. "It's going to take some time before people see both sides."

In the eyes of advocates for battered women, the grievances of divorced fathers pale in comparison with the magnitude of domestic violence as a widespread social problem with grave consequences.

Some reports have indicated that despite increased public awareness about domestic violence in the last decade, the level of abuse has not declined. McEvilly said this situation is reflected in the northern Central Massachusetts area served by Battered Women's Resources.

More than 5,000 women turned to the agency for help in the last year. The agency's hot line received 2,142 calls, 1,785 requests for counseling, and 165 requests for shelter for women and children. "People still do not want to think that domestic violence is here," but it remains pervasive and disturbing in its savagery, McEvilly said.

"I just think that overall, we're seeing it increase. I think many cases are not reported. Fear is still a strong factor."

Meanwhile, the view that men are facing bias and disadvantage in custody and probate court cases is spreading beyond the divorced fathers' movement. In an op-ed piece published in June in The New York Times, author Gail Sheehy said the number of fathers who do not meet their child support obligations are greatly outnumbered by responsible fathers who are unfairly denied access to their children by their ex-wives.

"The cliche is the Deadbeat Dad," wrote Sheehy, the author of "Passages," and "Understanding Men's Passages."

"The newer reality is the Deadbolted Dead - locked out of his children's hearts after divorce."

Former Gardner Police Chief Edward F. Cronin tells the story of how, as a young officer in Fitchburg, he had no legal authority to arrest a man who had slammed his wife into a steel radiator, leaving her with a gushing head wound. All he could do when the man ordered him out of the house, Cronin recalled, was to try to slow the woman's bleeding and take her to a hospital.

The anecdote shows how - until relatively recently - it was largely considered a private matter in the eyes of the law if a man chose to beat his wife or girlfriend in a private setting.

Spurred by grass-roots efforts to assist battered women, a sign of changing attitudes emerged in 1978 with the introduction into law of restraining orders in Massachusetts. In the 1980s, domestic violence took on a much more public profile, as newspaper and television reporters drew the connection between repeated cases in which women were killed by their boyfriends and husbands.

In a particularly infamous case that received national attention, Pamela Nigro Dunn was murdered by her abusive husband in 1986 after Somerville District Court Judge Paul P. Heffernan berated her for "wasting" the court's time in seeking protection from her spouse.

In the 1990s, domestic violence has increasingly been described as a widespread public health problem with grievous consequences. Public officials, including Gov. Paul Cellucci, Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, and some mayors and police chiefs, now take high-profile stands in speaking out against violence against women.

Victims of battering can now find legal advocacy, representation and, in some cases, victim compensation at the state's district courts.

Meanwhile, the number of restraining orders filed in district courts has skyrocketed, from 15,283 in fiscal 1982, to 49,056 in fiscal 1993, before dipping slightly in recent years, according to court records. A small number of restraining orders are filed in Superior Court, and an annual average of about 7,500 orders have also been filed in probate courts in recent years.

In 1996, the last year for which records were available, 41,667 restraining orders were filed in the state's district courts, including 711 in Dudley; 585 in Fitchburg; 426 in Gardner; 384 in Leominster; 265 in Uxbridge; 257 in Westboro; and 660 in Worcester.

Advocates for divorced fathers and other critics contend that the sheer volume of restraining orders and the criteria by which they can be obtained constitute a recipe for abuse of the system.

Activist fathers also cite the research of Neil Strauss, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, in arguing that women often share some responsibility for domestic disputes. In a 1988 study, Strauss found that men and women were equally likely to provoke each other through violence.

But advocates for battered women cite the huge volume of restraining orders as a sad reflection of the prevalence of domestic violence. Battering, they say, is a culturally ingrained phenomenon that is driven by the need of abusive men to have power and control over their girlfriends and wives.

"Justice is justice, and even if there's one" instance in which a man is falsely accused of domestic abuse, it's wrong, said Joyce Williams-Mitchell, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition of Battered Women's Service Groups in Boston. She suggested, however, that a greater problem is posed by abusive men who fail to recognize and take responsibility for their behavior.

Williams-Mitchell said an overwhelming majority of the men who attend court-ordered anger management and behavior modification classes later commit new acts of abuse. The risks that accompany a false claim of abuse by a woman, she said, make it likely that such cases will be few and far between.

"Domestic violence for a woman is still linked with shame and fear, so for a woman to put herself in a position to lie and to face guilt, fear and a court system that's not always sympathetic, that's kind of hard for me to believe," Williams-Mitchell said.

Some defense lawyers describe abuse of restraining orders as widespread, while others say it is a rare, but serious problem, because of the impact. In particular, critics fault the way defendants can be deprived of liberty and property under a relaxed burden of proof and without the right to a jury trial. They also fault the way a restraining order can be issued not just for causing harm, but for placing a person "in fear of imminent serious physical harm."

Under law, if a judge finds a substantial likelihood of immediate danger of abuse, a person can be removed from the home on the affidavit of an individual, generally without an immediate opportunity to present a case.

"In my opinion, there's a very low threshold of proof required for a restraining order," said Edward P. Ryan, a defense lawyer in Fitchburg. "Essentially, if a woman says, "I'm afraid of him for these reasons...,' a restraining order is issued."

"There's no question this goes on," Ryan said of the abuse of restraining orders, "and it's horrible."

Jane A. Fraier, a Northboro lawyer who specializes in family law, said abuse of restraining orders is relatively uncommon in her experience. But when such abuses do occur, she said, they constitute miscarriages of justice because of their impact.

Echoing Ryan and other critics, Fraier agreed that judges tend to err on the side of caution by issuing restraining orders in marginal cases, rather than risking a potential backlash. Fraier said judges invoke the 1986 slaying of Pamela Nigro Dunn, after a judge belittled her concerns, in openly stating how they don't want their names to wind up in the newspaper.

But Andre A. Gelinas, presiding justice of Fitchburg District Court and regional administrative justice for the district courts in Central Massachusetts, said judges strenuously try to make the right decision about requested restraining orders.

"There may be as many defendants who deny abuse falsely as there are plaintiffs who complain of abuse falsely," he said. "In those circumstances, it's up to the court to make some kind of call on credibility. That's why we have courts. We give people an opportunity to be heard."

Gelinas agreed that courts have very broad authority under the restraining order law. But he cited the issuance of temporary restraining orders in superior court, which can temporarily halt various kinds of activity without hearing from the defendant, as a precedent for the use of restraining orders in domestic violence cases.

Gelinas estimated false claims of domestic abuse represent less than 5 percent of requested restraining orders. The restraining order law has generally had a positive effect on society, he said, by aiding victims and sending a message that domestic violence will not be tolerated.

That 90 percent of restraining orders are later vacated or dismissed on request by the people who originally sought them, Gelinas said, is "a commentary on the complexity of human nature and human relationships."

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