COLUMBIA — State laws against domestic and sexual violence haven't been given a full-scale review in 30 years, but a new task force is expected to recommend changes that would increase protections for people living in violent domestic situations.
Last week, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced that he has created a task force to propose amendments to Missouri's current law. The idea was introduced by Colleen Coble, CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, during the 2008 election, in which Koster, a Democrat, ran against Republican Mike Gibbons.
Both candidates agreed to follow through on campaign promises to establish such a task force if elected, said Coble, one of two Columbians appointed to the panel. The other is state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia.
The task force is being created to try to understand “more of what an issue (domestic violence) is and what can be done to prevent it,” Kelly said. “Resources for safe, clean, comfortable places (for those abused are) very important.”
Coble said she is looking for greater protection for victims, and accountability and penalties for those found guilty of domestic or sexual violence.
Along with Koster, Kelly and Coble, the task force will consist of Jason Lamb, executive director of the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services; Joe Dandurand, deputy attorney general; and a panel of representatives from across the state.
The task force met for the first time on Tuesday in St. Louis. Subsequent meetings will be held this month in Columbia and Kansas City.
Changing the law
According to Missouri's current domestic violence law, "domestic violence may be physical or emotional" and can involve "slapping, punching, beating, kicking, threats of harm and verbal abuse."
While the general definition of what constitutes domestic violence has not changed, ideas for how to combat it have.
The law has been amended in all but five of the years since it passed in 1980, but Coble said it's time to take a closer look.
"There has been 30 years of domestic violence law, and there hasn't been a full-scale review of what is working, what needs to be enhanced and if there is anything outdated that needs to be reviewed," she said.
For example, Coble said, some amendments to the law have caused contradictions.
Domestic violence offenders are skilled at finding "holes in the law," and the task force will try to close those gaps, Coble said.
Kelly said one of the most important things is that “women and children have a safe place to get out of immediate threat, and police have the resources to get people into safe situations very quickly.”
According to the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence website, men, women and children stayed overnight in an emergency shelter 312,062 nights in 2009. Since 2000, this number has steadily increased.
Kelly, who was a 13th Circuit associate judge for seven years, saw domestic violence cases on his docket twice a week and “probably saw many, many hundreds of domestic violence cases,” he said.
He said he saw “what a true domestic terrorism it is for women.” He added that it's important to differentiate between cases.
“All domestic abuse is bad but it is important to recognize that there is a spectrum which reaches from the couple who has been married for 20 years who have an argument and he loses his temper and slaps her, extending to the other end where women are subjected to regular and vicious beatings several times a month,” he said.
There is a difference in degree and how to approach those situations, and the task force is looking to help women in both instances.
Coble said differentiation is difficult based on the way the law is written.
When judges evaluate abuse cases, there are limited ways to address the issue in an order of protection. But cases should be evaluated individually.
"Judges need greater flexibility in the law," she said.
Kelly said it's also important to educate women who are the victims of abuse. During his years as a judge, he saw some women come back into court multiple times having been beaten by two separate people.
“How can you get women to appreciate, while it is not their fault, that they must take responsibilities for their own lives?” Kelly said. “How do you educate young women to not get in that situation and then how to get out of it?”
Coble also would like to address funding for shelters.
According to the Coalition's website, for every two women who stayed in a Missouri shelter in 2009, three women were turned away because the shelters were overcrowded.
The number of turned away women increased by more than 60 percent from 2008.
Coble testified Tuesday and said she plans to testify at the other meetings this month. Her testimony at the Columbia hearing will focus primarily on how shelter programs are funded and "how, even in a time of budget cutting, there are things that could be done to make those funding programs as effective as possible."
At each of the meetings, the task force will hear testimony from prosecutors, judges, law enforcement officers, advocates and survivors.
Survivors will talk about what worked for them, what didn't and what needs to be done to provide protection and stop violence from escalating, Coble said.
During Tuesday's meeting, a woman recounted the issues she faced while extricating herself from her violent situation. Coble said the woman spoke about how she faced obstacles along every step of the way in response to stopping the abuse, where she really should have received help right away.
During each meeting, there will be testimony from members of the task force and from others. Coble said that the St. Louis meeting was "so exciting and encouraging" because it provided substantial information about what can be done to stop violence as soon as it begins.