Maria fled to a battered women's shelter in north Orange County with her three young children a few weeks ago after her husband told her he was going to kill her. Because he kept a handgun at their Santa Ana home, she believed him.
Maria, who asked that her real name not be used, said her husband is an alcoholic and had abused her before, slapping her face, pulling her hair and choking her until her neck was black and blue. Before she left for the shelter, "he was always threatening me. He'd tell me that if I took the kids, he was going to find me and kill me," she said.
She was staying at the Women's Transitional Living Center in north Orange County when a Santa Ana police detective called, looking for her. He told her that because she left without telling her husband where the children were, she might be in violation of Penal Code Section 277, she said. When the detective told her "that he had the right to arrest me," Maria said, "I couldn't believe it."
After she told him her side of the story and agreed to see a lawyer about a temporary custody order, the detective said he would not press charges. But "I was very scared. And I thought it was very unfair after all the hell I went through," Maria said. "That's not justice to me."
California Penal Code Section 277 has been causing a lot of concern among officials at shelters for battered women throughout the state since it became effective last Jan. 1. The law, which is intended to prevent one parent from taking and concealing a child with the intent of depriving the other parent of custody, is being used as a tool by wife beaters to punish the wife and make her come home, shelter directors say.
Maria's case was one of two incidents in which Orange County police departments have contacted the Women's Transitional Living Center, looking for women whose husbands had filed complaints under the new law, according to center director Susan Leibel.
Last spring, a warrant was issued for the arrest of an Orange County woman who had received help from Safety Net, a county-funded program that offers battered women immediate but temporary shelter in motel rooms, program manager Judi Naslund said. The woman's husband dropped the charges after she agreed to go back to him, Naslund said.
Leibel said she is worried that the law will become a bigger problem as more people become aware of it. The majority of women in shelters bring their children with them, and batterers will try many avenues to get their wives and children back, Leibel said.
In years past, batterers have enlisted police assistance in trying to find the women, usually by filing a missing person report. Leibel said batterers will go to the police for assistance, even if, by assaulting their wives or girlfriends, they have committed a crime. "The batterers don't see themselves as doing anything wrong," she said.
Jill Kelly, a member of the California Alliance Against Domestic Violence and executive director of the El Dorado Women's Center in Placerville, said she does not know how many complaints have been filed against women in shelters under the new law, but there has been "a growing concern" about Penal Code Section 277.
The California Alliance, a legislative and policy advocacy group, will discuss the law at its next meeting later this month, she said. "What we would like to do is add something (to the law) to exempt women in shelters from culpability," Kelly said.
She said most shelter directors agree that the law is a good one but worry that it is being misused.
Before Penal Code Section 277 became effective, parental child stealing was only a crime if the parent had violated a custody agreement, according to state Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), who sponsored the law. If one parent took the child, and there had never been any custody agreements, the other parent could not get assistance from the criminal justice system to get the child back, Lockyer said.
"It just says it's a crime to permanently deprive a parent of custody," Lockyer said. The issue of battered women in shelters "was discussed when the bill was moving (through the Legislature)," Lockyer said, but he added: "I would guess that a district attorney would not file a charge (against a woman in a shelter).
"I'm sympathetic to the (battered) woman's plight. But it is far outweighed by the (situation of a) spouse stealing the kid and never giving him back."
As for making an exemption for women in shelters, Lockyer said: "Theoretically that's (possible), but I'm not sure it's needed." Women who leave home with their children to escape the husband's abuse should file for temporary custody as soon as possible, Lockyer said. "She would generally have to do that regardless."