Father Advocates Move for Repeal of Restraining Order Law
August 01, 2011
State House News Service, By Kyle Cheney
Advocates for fathers are mounting a ballot effort to repeal the state’s restraining order law, arguing that it has been overused and misapplied in a way that discriminates against men and breaks up families.
“The real world effect is that fathers, in particular, are instantly removed from their families. If they have children they are instantly removed from the lives of their children,” said Joseph Ureneck, chairman of the Fatherhood Coalition, which advocates to “end the discrimination and persecution faced by divorced and unwed fathers.”
In advance of a Wednesday deadline, Ureneck and 17 supporters filed a 2012 ballot petition with Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office this week that would repeal the restraining order law, also called Chapter 209A, which has been cited by anti-domestic violence advocates as an important tool for victims of abuse. The repeal would take effect Jan. 1, 2013. Ureneck suggested that backers are considering filing a second ballot proposal to amend the law, in case the repeal effort is rejected by Coakley as too broad.
“The way that the law is written now, all that a person has to do is say, ‘I’m afraid of this person and I also don’t want this person to see our children,’ and they just check off a box,” Ureneck said. “Many times there is no allegation that the father has done anything untoward to the children. It’s a horrible law in terms of breaking up families.”
Ureneck said the state could instead rely on existing assault and battery laws to address domestic abuse and violence. He said that the restraining order law was meant as a violence prevention tool, which has allowed disgruntled family members to punish each other and take away access to their children over sometimes-unfounded allegations.
Advocates for women and domestic violence victim ripped the move to repeal Chapter 209A, calling it a “desperate” effort to remove a lifesaving option for victims of abuse.
“This move in some ways just exposes what our concerns have been about the efforts of this group and others to just completely dismiss the reality of the lives of victims of domestic violence who rely not only on access to services and supportive systems but legal options, such as accessing 209A orders that offer serious, necessary and life-saving protection for thousands of victims of domestic violence,” said Toni Troop, spokeswoman of Jane Doe Inc., an anti-domestic violence organization.
Troop said her organization would take a repeal effort seriously.
“[Repeal backers] have been trying for years in various ways to undermine the 209A order, to undermine protections for victims of domestic violence. The electorate and our elected officials have seen through their efforts,” she said. “It’s almost like they’re getting so desperate and going for something so bold. My guess is it will backfire on them. Yet we can’t take lightly the threat they represent.”
An effort to place the repeal on the 2012 ballot would require supporters to mount a major signature drive throughout the fall. If Coakley certifies the language of the petition in September, proponents must then gather 68,911 signatures by mid-November. Then, if the Legislature opts against supporting their proposal or offering an alternative by May 2012, backers must gather another 11,485 signatures by July 2012, clearing the way to put the question on the ballot.
Restraining orders, according to the group, carry no criminal penalties alone, but violators are subject to arrest and criminal sanctions, according to state law. Judges may issue restraining orders to protect applicants who face “a substantial likelihood of immediate danger of abuse.” Subjects of proposed restraining orders have the right to argue against them before a judge. Violations of a restraining order can result in imprisonment for up to 2.5 years, a $5,000 fine or both.
According to Jane Doe, restraining orders can include a variety of stipulations, including an order to halt abuse, an order to prohibit contact, an order to force an alleged abuser out of the home or office of a victim, a temporary custody order for children, a temporary order to force support payments, a temporary order to force monetary compensation for any losses caused by abuse, an order to prohibit abuse or contact with the filer’s children, and a requirement that the alleged abuser attend an intervention program.
A judge may also force the subject of restraining order to turn over any firearms and suspend licenses to carry firearms, according to state law.
Peter Elikann, a Boston criminal attorney who says he has represented clients seeking and defending against restraining orders, called 209A orders “absolutely necessary” but agreed that abuses have occurred.
“You don’t’ want to go back to the bad old days when women or abused people have no protection at all,” he said, adding however, “From time to time, people do abuse them.”
Elikann said it’s an open secret that applicants for restraining orders nearly always receive them.
“All you have to do is request one and you’ll pretty much be granted one,” he said. “Somebody’s about to file for divorce and their attorney will decide to just request one to get the other party out of the house, let’s say. If one [member] of a couple gets angry at the other, they can go to court and know they can get the person away from them. It is not totally rare and unusual that they’re abused. On the other hand, it’s such a difficult issue because they are totally necessary … I don’t think there’s any clear-cut answer.”