Despite the fact that more often than not victims of violent crimes are killed by someone they know rather than a stranger, the lawmakers in Maryland don’t seem to want to make it any easier for the victims to be protected. Once again Maryland has the chance to do what every other state in the country does in affording protections to victims of domestic abuse. There is a proposal being debated in the General Assembly that would ease the draconian standards for obtaining protective orders. Unfortunately, the prospects are not good for this to pass. The lawmakers need to wake up to the reality that their refusal to put in place sensible safeguards endangers lives and makes Maryland a national disgrace.
The House and Senate are considering bills that would change the standard of proof needed to grant a final protective order. The bills, H.B.700 by Del. C. Sue Hecht (D-Frederick) and S.B.823 by Sen. Jennie M. Forehand (D-Montgomery), would replace the current standard of “clear and convincing evidence” to a “preponderance of the evidence” the same as the rest of the country. Maryland is the only state that uses this higher standard when victims — most often women — seek orders to protect themselves and their children from their alleged abusers. In all other civil matters, Maryland courts require only a preponderance of evidence.
There are fears by some opponents that this would somehow lead to careless decisions based on false charges, rather than concern for those who are in danger. These fears are unfounded because judges would still be able to assess the credibility of any claim, but they would have more discretion in reaching a decision which could help save lives. Instead of being restricted by there being no doubt about a petitioner being in danger, the court would be able to use the more reasonable standard of there being a good chance of danger.
What might have been the outcome for Anthony, Austin and Athena had this standard been available to Judge Dugan who denied the request for a protective order from Amy Castillo? Ms. Castillo’s three children were drowned by a father whose threats about killing the children were deemed insufficient for a protective order. Ms. Castillo recounted her tragedy last month when she testified in favor of easier access to protective orders before the House Judiciary Committee, a body notoriously hostile to this and other reforms sought by advocates for victims of domestic violence.
The committee has thwarted similar bills in previous years, and judging by the reception it gave Ms. Castillo, chances don’t seem much improved this year. Their argument that no problem exists because only (their emphasis) 14 percent of protective orders are denied because the standard of proof isn’t met is no consolation for Ms. Castillo or the others who make up that 14 percent. It is UNACCEPTABLE as lives have been lost. The Castillo children are gone and the lack of concern over this is appalling, as was her treatment in court and also by the committee. As Ms. Castillo told the committee: “When you’re in fear of your life and for your children, and you make that move to step out and do something about it, and then you go to get a protective order, and you don’t get it, it’s just really devastating. . . . It’s like a discouragement to make a change in your life that needs to be made.”