209A Reform Bills - S952/S953
Steve Basile's Testimony to Joint Committee on the Judiciary
By Steve Basile, May 17, 2001
(S952/S953) Testimony of Mark Charalambous
Co-Director, North Central Chapter
29 Harrington Road
Westminster, MA. 01473
Testimony to the Massachusetts Judiciary Committee, May 17, 2001
In support of S952 and S953
Over the past four years, and with the help of many selfless volunteers, I have directed a study of domestic violence and the use of 209A Protective Orders. The study involved an examination of all non-impounded orders issued by Gardner District Court in the year 1997, nearly 400 of them. I now have two papers currently under review for publication, the first of which I will be presenting in July at the 7th International Family Violence Research Conference, sponsored by the Family Research Laboratory and the Crimes Against Children Research Center, both of UNH.
The research was comprised of three components. The first component involved a gender inclusive and neutral examination of abuse. 209A Protective Orders were examined to compare and contrast male and female violence. We wanted to know, for those cases known to the court, were males physically or psychologically more aggressive than their female counterparts?
We discovered, that despite widespread perception that minimizes or discounts female abuse, examination of abusive behavior as documented by 209A Protective Orders, showed that females and males were almost equally abusive in terms of psychological and physical aggression.
The second research component examined the courts response to allegations of abuse across gender boundaries. We wanted to know if the court responded differently to male and female requests for protection?
We discovered that despite gender-neutral language of Abuse Prevention Law, application of that law heavily favored female plaintiffs. Male plaintiffs were substantially more likely to have a decision on their case deferred, or to be denied. No male plaintiff was able to secure long-term custody of his children. A couple of male plaintiffs each secured short-term custody after demonstrating the mothers long, documented, history of substance abuse.
The final research component involved a survey of litigants to examine key characteristics not found in the official record. For example, did plaintiffs, or victims, in these cases; ever-initiate physical attacks against their partners? Were male plaintiffs, more or less satisfied with the process, than were their female counterparts? How many cases involved a custody battle?
Unfortunately, Jane, Doe, Inc., a battered womans group, distorted our intensions and lobbied key legislators to stop this initiative. As a result, three separate pieces of legislation were filed, and eventually two became law. One filed by Attorney General Thomas Riley pulled address and phone information out of the public domain. One filed by Senator Jacques did the same thing, but also set up an elaborate and probably costly, virtual mailbox system, coincidently developed in consultation with Jane Doe, preventing even court officials from having direct access to victims.
At no time did any battered womans advocate or legislator contact us to ask about our research design. To ease concerns we even sent a letter to Jane, Doe, suggesting use of their own volunteers to conduct the survey. We got no response and the attacks continued. After intense negative publicity, and concern for my own well-being, the well-being of my family, and the well-being of my volunteers, I decided not to continue the survey. We completed only 30.
We were certainly not the first researchers to conduct a domestic violence victim survey in Massachusetts. It was until recently, common practice. But those in power, with political agendas or their own, did not like who we were, or more importantly, what questions we were asking.
Unfortunately, as a direct result of this research, it is now much harder for all to do domestic violence research in Massachusetts. This hurts fathers, their children, and even domestic violence victims, the very people who these advocates are trying to help.
Although, the survey is incomplete, and by no means scientific, its results are very disturbing if even partially accurate. For example 64% of female plaintiffs, or victims, respond that they sometimes initiated physical attacks upon their partner. Male plaintiffs were very dissatisfied with the process while female plaintiffs were somewhat satisfied. Between 38 and 58% of cases involved a simultaneous custody battle.
Current domestic violence law and policy, and its entanglement with custody law, is a substantial barrier which inhibits many non-abusive, healthy, beneficial father / child relationships. For this reason, fathers are very concerned about domestic violence law and its in-practice application.
The legislation you have before you would be a small step in the right direction. The prevision, which I am most passionate about, would change "fear" to "threat"
(S952 §4; S953 §5). Although this change may seem subtle to some, I see it as critically important.
On each complaint for protection are four checkboxes, which itemize the four conditions under Massachusetts law, for which a protective order can be obtained.
We found that in 41-44% of the cases, the plaintiff said that the defendant never harmed, tried to harm, or forced sex. In other words, nearly half the cases involved non-violent relationships. These cases only involve a plaintiffs stated fear of the defendant.
Defending against fear is an impossible task. Everyone knows this. Fear may be justified by threats or threatening behavior, or it may be unjustified. We need to make a distinction. A defendant must do something explicit which threatens the plaintiff. A threat is well defined under current case law. It can be with words, or with other actions. However, it must be something the defendant explicitly does. The change from "fear" to "threat", while subtle, will surely discourage some plaintiffs in non-violent relationships from improperly asking the court for protection.
Domestic violence is time and time again painted exclusively as something male batterers do to their innocent female victims. Our laws, policies, and practices unfortunately reflect this myth. We cannot close our eyes, or hide records that prove that women can batter too. We cannot close our minds to the overwhelming testimony from countless victims that suggest they often also misuse Abuse Prevention Orders. Please support this very important legislation.
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