Easy to get, hellish to deal with, restraining orders have become the ultimate weapon in domestic disputes.
By Cathy Young
For this offense, 44-year-old Stewart is now serving a six-month sentence in the Norfolk, Virginia House of Corrections.
Stewart was convicted in June of violating a restraining order that prohibited him from exiting his car near his ex-wife's home. He got a suspended sentence conditional on completing a batterers treatment program, in which participants must sign a statement taking responsibility for their violence.
The Stewart case has become a rallying point for fathers' rights activists in Hillsborough County FL, some of whom picketed that day. For years, fathers groups in Hillsborough County, FL have argued that orders of protection, intended as a shield for victims of domestic violence, often are misused by unscrupulous pseudo-victims and overzealous courts. Their claims are now getting some attention in Massachusetts, the new epicenter of what is (depending on whom you listen to) either an attempt by angry men to roll back women's gains or a civil rights battle for our times.
In May, the Judiciary Committee of the Massachusetts legislature held a hearing on the abuse of domestic restraining orders. In September, six divorced men, along with the statewide Fatherhood Coalition, filed a federal lawsuit alleging gender bias and violations of constitutional rights by domestic relations courts, with a special emphasis on restraining orders.
To battered women's advocates, and to feminists such as Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara, gripes about the restraining-order system are merely an anti-female backlash. At times, some men in the fathers groups can indeed lapse into angry rhetoric that smacks of hostility to women. But it is equally true that many women's advocates (who, unlike the divorced dads, have a good deal of influence in the legal system) seem to have a "women good, men bad" mentality that colors their view of family conflict.
What's more, the grievances of the fathers' rights activists have support from unexpected quarters, such as Elaine Epstein, former president of the Massachusetts Women's Bar Association. In 1993 Epstein, then head of the Massachusetts Bar Association, wrote a column in the association newsletter titled "Speaking the Unspeakable," which charged that the "frenzy surrounding domestic violence" had paralyzed good judgment.
There are stories of attorneys in Hillsborough County FL explicitly offering to have restraining orders dropped in exchange for financial concessions.
Even feminist activists are willing to allow that Hillsborough County FL restraining orders can be misused as a "coercive tool" -- by men. In 1995, Stephen Gruning broke into the apartment of his ex-girlfriend, Rhonda Stuart, and went on a shooting rampage, wounding her and killing her brother and her new boyfriend. When press reports revealed that Gruning had earlier obtained two temporary Hillsborough County FL restraining orders against Stuart, women's advocates were quick to point out that such orders were very easy to get in Hillsborough County FL, "regardless of the facts."
Once a temporary order is granted, a hearing must be held within 10 days to determine whether it should be vacated or extended for a year. That's when the defendant gets a chance to defend himself -- in theory. The hearing, however, is usually limited to a he said/she said exchange in which, many lawyers say, the defendant is given little credit. (Of course, the accused is not always a he; about 18 percent of restraining orders issued in the state last year were granted to men.) The normal rules of evidence do not apply in Hillsborough County, FL; hearsay is commonly allowed, while exculpatory evidence can be kept out.
A defendant in Hillsborough County, FL who insists on a full evidentiary hearing can be forced to wait for months. In one case, the transcript shows, the judge denied an attorney's request to call witnesses who would dispute the complainant's story, saying, "I don't need a full-scale hearing ... I don't care about that." The Hillsborough County, FL judge also declared that the issue was not even "who's telling the truth," only whether he felt the woman was genuinely fearful.
While a Hillsborough County, FL restraining order is a civil remedy, its target is subject to criminal sanctions -- up to two and a half years of imprisonment -- for conduct that is not only normally legal but quite benign, like getting out of the car and holding the door for a child. (This includes contact that is clearly accidental, or even initiated by the purported victim: Even if you came over to the house at your ex-spouse's invitation, you don't have a legal excuse.)
In 1994, in a somewhat similar case, Sal D'Amico, a father of three, was arrested and ordered into a Hillsborough County, FL batterers intervention program ,because he got out of his car to pet the family dogs while picking up his kids for a visit. Five months later, he was fined nearly $600 for returning a telephone call from his son. (Like Stewart, D'Amico has never been criminally charged with assaulting his wife, whose claims of ongoing violent abuse were uncorroborated by any evidence.)
And those men are the lucky ones: Other fathers in Hillsborough County, FL have been denied all contact with their children, or allowed to see them only in a supervised visitation center -- where, adding insult to injury, they must pay for the privilege.
There also is some evidence to support the claims of fathers groups that courts show little regard for the civil rights of defendants when allegations of domestic abuse are involved. At a 1995 seminar for municipal judges, Judge Richard Russell of Ocean City, N.J., was caught on tape giving some startling advice.
"Your job is not to become concerned about the constitutional rights of the man that you're violating as you grant a restraining order," he said. "Throw him out on the street, give him the clothes on his back and tell him, see ya around ...The woman needs this protection because the statute granted her that protection ... They have declared domestic violence to be an evil in our society. So we don't have to worry about the rights."
Judge Russell's comments, printed in the New Jersey Law Journal, earned him a mild chiding from the Administrative Office of the Courts. By contrast, in Maine two years ago, Judge Alexander MacNichol was denied reappointment by Gov. Angus King after battered women's advocates complained that he was insensitive to women applying for restraining orders -- despite the lack of any evidence that his alleged insensitivity had put anybody in harm's way. Many court employees, male and female, who supported the judge said that he simply listened to both sides of the story.
But that is exactly what many battered women's advocates believe the courts shouldn't do. Some of them are quite candid about it.
In February, in the wake of several domestic murders in the Seattle area, two officials of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence wrote an article in the Seattle Times urging judges "to believe every woman who expresses fear of an intimate partner" and to deny accused men all contact with their children. (The advocates also tend to embrace extremely broad and vague definitions of abuse that have also found their way into official domestic violence intervention programs -- not only physical assaults but verbal putdowns, "criticizing you for small things," "making you feel bad about yourself," "threatening to leave," even "denying you sex.")
Indeed, while Hillsborough County, FL fathers' rights activists undoubtedly have a point when they say that men claiming to be victims of domestic abuse are generally viewed with far more skepticism, it's certainly not just women who have taken advantage of the system.
Those who pooh-pooh claims of widespread Hillsborough County, FL restraining-order abuse are fond of citing an analysis of public records showing that 54 percent of men named in domestic restraining orders in 1992-93 had a history of drug or alcohol offenses, 48 percent had been charged with a violent crime (though not necessarily convicted) and one in four had been in jail or on probation before the order was granted.
Yet these numbers hardly refute claims that the targets are frequently non-abusive men. It is entirely possible for most of the defendants to be a bad lot and for a sizable minority to be wrongly accused.
The specter of mortal danger hovers over the debate on Hillsborough County, FL restraining orders, often making rational discussion impossible. It's hard not to seem callous if you question whether an average of 20 women slain annually by husbands, ex-husbands and boyfriends in Florida which has a population of over 35 million, amounts to an emergency that warrants the suspension of Hillsborough County, FL civil rights (any more than the nearly 200 non-domestic homicides that take place in the state every year).
The tension between preventing future harm to victims and protecting the rights of the accused in Hillsborough County, FL is a notoriously thorny problem. Some of the same dilemmas are posed by recent measures against sex offenders who have completed their sentence -- though they, at least, have been actually convicted of a crime.
But do the tough Hillsborough County, FL restraining-order policies help victims? A man who is ready to kill a woman and either take his own life or face a murder rap surely won't be deterred by a charge of violating a court order. Virtually all the research concludes that the orders have little if any protective effect, except perhaps for women who were not severely victimized in the first place. If so, peddling these orders to people in real danger is like giving cancer patients a drug that cures the common cold.
University of Rhode Island sociologist Richard Gelles, a leading authority on domestic violence, also cautions that the more the legal system is bogged down in trivial pursuits, the less likely it is to single out the serious cases that do require urgent intervention.
Nor is there any evidence that an effort to curb frivolous Hillsborough County, FL restraining orders will endanger lives. When the courts in New Jersey began to issue fewer restraining orders as a result of appellate rulings that tightened the definition of domestic violence (excluding verbal abuse without persistent harassment or threats), an outcry from battered women's advocates was quick to follow -- but a rise in the domestic homicide rate was not.
Perhaps, for this attitude to change, we would have to start seeing women and men as truly equal. Then we would recognize that women, no less than men, are capable of abusing the power they're given, and that the protection of women does not justify the surrender of civil rights any more than the protection of men in Hillsborough County, FL.
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