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The Nation

Judges Push for Abused to Follow the Law

Violence: Expressing frustration, some punish women who seek help, then violate no-contact orders themselves.

January 22, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Judge Megan Lake Thornton is fed up. The frustration comes through in her voice.

Hundreds of women have come before her in domestic violence court over the years, begging for protective orders to keep abusive husbands away. Some have awakened her at 2 a.m. with pleas for emergency orders. And then, within days, many are back in her court--arm in arm with the men they say they fear.

"I find that offensive," Thornton told one young mother who acknowledged reconciling with her husband days after obtaining a protective order. "It drives me nuts when people just decide to do whatever they want."

The judge then fined the woman--who is so poor she doesn't have a phone--$100 for contempt of court.

That case last month in Fayette County District Court here drew national attention, with advocates for battered women warning that it might frighten victims from asking the courts for help.

While it made a splash, the case was not unique--and may not even have been all that unusual.

In rural Kentucky, some judges send women to jail for contacting their husbands after getting court orders to keep them at bay. In Illinois, some judges hold women in contempt for disavowing their initial complaints of abuse after reconciling with their boyfriends. In North Carolina, some judges have taken to charging women a $65 fee if they apply for a protective order then decide to drop the matter.

"We need to make these [women] insist on their own independence. Otherwise, the court system can't help them," explained Ron Johnson, a circuit judge in the coal fields of eastern Kentucky who has jailed women for flouting protective orders.

Advocates for abused women--and the victims themselves--find such logic appallingly callous.

They say it ignores the plight of battered women who depend on their mates for financial support. It overlooks the complications of custody when children are involved. It fails to recognize that some victims are coerced into returning.

Above all, they say, sanctioning these women ignores the central dynamic of abusive relationships: Most victims leave and return, leave and return, in a cycle that can repeat for years until they muster the resolve to split for good.

In applying for a protective order, a woman may desperately want the court to make the violence stop. But that does not mean she wants the judge to end her relationship then and there.

"It's easy for all of us to look at these cases and say, 'Why would you ever want to go back?' But if you love someone, it's different," said Lisa Beran, an attorney with the Kentucky Domestic Violence Assn. who is appealing Thornton's ruling. "He may do these awful things, but you have to remember: He's also the one who rubs your back and brings you juice when you're sick and gets up with the baby half the time at night."

In the case Beran is appealing, the woman grabbed her 6-month-old baby and fled to her parents' house after a fight with her husband. The next day, she went to court and filed a handwritten petition for protection. Her husband, she wrote, had returned home drunk and "grabbed me by the back of [the] neck and attempted to hit me with [a] picture frame."

The judge on duty issued a temporary order barring the husband "from any contact or communication" with his wife or baby. Then she ordered the couple to return in two weeks to discuss a more permanent solution. In the meantime, however, they reconciled.

They returned to court on the designated day. This time, Thornton was on duty.

And she was furious.

"I have [no-contact] orders in place, [and then] folks walk into the courtroom . . . and everything's all hunky-dory," she said, fuming, at the contempt hearing in mid-December. "When these orders are entered, you don't just do whatever you . . . please and ignore them."

Holding the husband and the wife in contempt, she fined each $100.

Two weeks earlier, in a similar case, Thornton had fined a woman $200 for returning home to her boyfriend. "Somebody with a fourth-grade education ought to be able to read this [no-contact order] and understand what it says," Thornton said in that case.

Yet advocates for battered women insist it's the judge who's misreading the documents. The standard emergency protection order in Kentucky states that the "respondent," meaning the alleged abuser, is prohibited from contacting the victim, the person who applied for the order. There is nothing on the order that bars the alleged victim from doing the communicating, although such attempts should not prove very fruitful if the man is steering clear of the woman, as ordered.

"This is a legal issue," said Carol Jordan, director of the state's office for domestic violence services. "Someone who is petitioning for help is not bound by the protective order."

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