Bill to give civil protection to victims of dating violence is poised to become law, addressing a serious health issue for women

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. – Victims of violence between dating partners in Kentucky are about to get a law giving them civil court protection, after years of hitting roadblocks in the state Senate. Most of the argument has been among lawyers, about legal process, but domestic violence is also a major health issue.

“There is a strong association between the experience of victimization and physical and mental health problems,” Carol Jordan, executive director of the Office for Policy Studies on Violence Against Women at the University of Kentucky, said in an interview.

Rep. John Tilley

House Bill 8, sponsored by Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, would allow a civil protective order for victims of dating violence and stalking. Under current law, this immediate level of protection is only offered to people who are married, have a child in common or who have lived together. Kentucky is the only state that offers no such protections.

As of March 8, the bill was awaiting passage in the Senate after clearing the Judiciary Committee with a substitute version that addresses a key objection by creating a new chapter in the statutes for the bill, separate from the existing domestic-violence chapter.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, had opposed previous bills on grounds that criminal protections exist for victims of dating violence. At the committee hearing, he said the new bill offers a “different tier of protection” and is a “solution that individuals want.”

But Stivers added, “I don’t want there to be an unjustified belief that a piece of paper will keep someone away” if they are intent on doing harm.

And Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, declined to vote on the bill, saying it would do nothing to stop the abuser. “That perpetrator is really the one that needs some help and really needs to stop the cycle,” she said. “Because if he or she can’t find another victim, they’re going to go create one.”

But Marion Brown, director of Sanctuary Inc., a shelter, counseling and court-advocate center for victims of domestic violence in Hopkinsville, told the committee that victims of dating violence have no immediate civil protections if they are not married, don’t live with or don’t have a child with their abuser. These unprotected victims “walk out of our doors not feeling safe” she said. “Help us help them.”

Tilley shared some chilling statistics at the hearing: 638,000 Kentucky women will experience physical violence, rape or stalking by an intimate partner; 345,000 will experience a forcible rape; and 420,000 will be stalked, which, he said, is the highest percentage in the nation.

Also in Kentucky, one in three women will be the victim of domestic violence in her lifetime and the most vulnerable population for this type of violence is females between 16 and 19, according to the Louisville-based Center for Women and Families.

Domestic violence and health

The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that victims of domestic violence, both men and women, are “more likely to report frequent headaches, chronic pain, difficulty with sleeping, activity limitations, poor physical health and poor mental health that men and women who had not experienced these forms of violence.” It also found that women who had experienced domestic violence were also “more likely to report asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, and diabetes than women who did not experience these forms of violence.”

“”It is a women’s health issue because the way women treat their bodies (is often) dependent on the abuser,” Brown said in an interview. “The abuser degrades them so much that they don’t maintain their health. Their self-confidence goes down, their self-esteem goes down and as a result, all of their health issues fall to the wayside.”

“Domestic violence is a public health crisis of a staggering multitude,” Marcia Roth, executive director of The Mary Byron Project, a non-profit that advocates for domestic violence issues, said in a phone interview. “It leads to $4.1 billion for direct medical and mental health services per year.”
Jordan, of UK,  said she has been part of research that shows an association between breast cancer and domestic violence – not higher cancer rates, but delayed diagnoses, which can be fatal. “For many battered women, their partners are so controlling they won’t let them go to the doctor,” she said.
Jordan said that while physical injuries are the most obvious health issue, “it goes well beyond that,” to physical stress and mental-health issues.
“There is a lot of research that would suggest that other systems within the body are also very much harmed by the experience of living in that constant fear, constant stress, constant tension that so many battered women do,” she said. “Depression begins to sink in” when women feel they have no way out, get repeated messages that they are not worthy, or are in constant fear of harm.

Jordan said the bill will provide another escape outlet for victims. When they show up for help and answer no to these three questions: “Are you married? Are you living together? or Do you have a child together?” and can’t get an immediate protective order, she said, their sense of helplessness is confirmed.
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