THE SINGLE most frequently committed crime in the United States takes place behind closed doors. Every year an estimated 28 million women are the victims of violence at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends. Nevertheless, a bill is now working its way through the Massachusetts Legislature that would it passed into law dramatically reduce the legal options available to battered women.
Senate bill #1002 would place a fee on the temporary restraining order (t. r. o.) that a district court judge awards to a battered woman. A t.r.o. authorizes a police officer to arrest an abuser it violence recurs or if he is found on property that he was ordered to vacate until a hearing date could be set.
Since 1978, when the Abuse Protection Act was passed in Massachusetts. t.r.o's have been free and available to all women-married or unmarried. A civil order that serves as a warning rather than the strict criminal assault charge the t.r.o. offers an attractive option to women who might have been ambivalent about hauling their husbands in front of the legal system in the first place. Before the act, the only legal route open to women was to file an assault and battery charge against their assailant.
If $1002 passes, fewer women will file for t.r.o.'s say workers in Boston area shelters that offer refuge to battered women and their children. According to Josephine Mattina, who works at the Dove Shelter in Quincy, the proposed $5 fee will stop many women from filing for the orders. Mattina says that more than 90 percent of the women arriving at the Dove Shelter do so with only their children and the clothes on their backs. "The husband almost always controls the money. He's not going to let her get away with $5," she says.
And shelter workers are skeptical that their groups can fill the gap. Deborah Battista, who works at the Harbor Me shelter in East Boston, says that Massachusetts shelters, which last year temporarily housed 34,444 women and children, could never afford to foot the bill for t.r.o. applications. "Shelters exist on minimal state and private funding," she says.
Ruth McCambridge a coordinator of the Massachusetts Coalition of Battered Women's Service Groups, says that last year 17,881 t.r.o.'s were issued in Massachusetts. "Shelters simply don't have the funds to help women get these at five dollars a shot," she says.
BUT WHAT IS perhaps most dangerous about $1002 is that it may lead to fewer men being arrested for "spouse abuse" (the official terminology slurs over the fact that the violence is almost always perpetrated by a man on a woman).
Since the Abuse Protection Act ushered in free and accessible i.r.o.'s in 1978, communities have seen an increase in arrests for abuse. "There' s absolutely no question that more abusers are arrested now," says Michael Shea; legal counsel for the Chief Justice of the District Court who oversees the implementation of the act.
For years a widely held belief was that arresting the abuser was not the best way to prevent repetition of domestic violence. It is argued that arresting the men, fining them, or putting them in jail overnight only made them angrier and more likely to repeat the violence.
But a significant study that recently came out of Minneapolis refutes this belief and shows that arrest is the best deterrant to the crime. For a period of eighteen months a group of researchers monitored a police force that had agreed to vary their responses to domestic violence calls. One group of officers arrested the men, another group told the men to take a walk around the block to "cool down" (a common police response to domestic violence calls), and another group tried to mediate between the couple and did not arrest.
Questioning the victims on whether violence was repeated, the researchers found that violence recurred more than two and a half times more frequently in the non arrest cases. The study concluded that "swift imposition of a sanction of temporary incarceration deters male offenders in domestic assault cases."
Without a violation of a t.r.o., police are reluctant to arrest abusers. By curtailing a woman's access to the t.r.o., which carries with it the promise of swift police action upon violation, Massachusetts would be failing go take what appears to be the best tactic for prevention of domestic violence.
BURDENING THE VICTIM is just another way of blaming the victim. Making it difficult for a woman to seek protection signals to that woman that somehow she doesn't deserve it-that she was at fault in the first place. If she had been a better wife, if she hadn't nagged that one time, or burned the dinner the other time, or burned the dinner the other time, maybe she wouldn't have the scars on her face or the bruises on her arm.
Blame is constantly being placed on women for the violence, harassment, and abuse that they suffer. Phyllis Schlafly tells women that if they dress conservatively they shouldn't fear being raped or sexually harassed, and that the women who are the victims of sexual abuse were "asking for it." On witness stands, rape victims are asked if they did anything to provoke their assailant. What were they wearing? How were they walking?
Violence is violence, whether it takes place in a barroom or a bedroom. It should be deplored, punished and every step should be taken to deter it. Massachusetts legislators should take a careful look at $1002 before they pass it into law: the seemingly inconsequential change in policy will do nothing to prevent domestic violence and may well encourage it.