Battered Women Fined for Returning to Abusers

In Lexington, Ky., two victims of domestic violence are being punished twice, say advocates for battered women. These advocates are outraged over a county judge's decision to hold two women in contempt of court for returning to the men who had abused them.

"It goes against any sense of justice and fairness that I think that we all have as a society," said attorney Lisa Beran, who heads the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association. Beran plans to appeal the cases.

Judge Megan Lake Thorton, of Fayette County District Court, fined the women after they had both been granted a protective order forbidding their partners from contacting them following an abusive incident. Thorton ruled that the order was mutually binding when the women returned to their partners, and cited the men for contempt, too.

"When these orders are entered you don't just do what you damn well please and ignore them," said Thorton at the hearing on Dec. 12, according to court records. " They are orders of the court, and people are ordered to follow them and I don't care which side you're on."

Sandy Rios, an advocate for women's issues, agrees. "There has to be a certain amount of self control," she said. "That's good for us to exercise that, that the judge is trying to get these women to exercise some self control."

Protective Orders Common, Not Mutual

Protective orders are a standard tool in domestic abuse cases. Kentucky courts issue about 30,000 emergency protective orders every year. It is one of the reasons for the stunning decline in domestic violence over the last 20 years across the country.

However, Thorton's unusual comments in court may reflect frustration over the epidemic of domestic abuse cases in the state.

"I take those calls all hours of the day or night for true emergencies," she said, according to court records, "And it drives me nuts when people just decide to do whatever they want to do and they don't care what the order says."

But Lisa Beran plans to argue that protective orders are not a mutual responsibility. "The mutuality makes her responsible for his illegal conduct. Our law is to prohibit the abusive act that occurred, not to constrict or determine what the victim, the person who has suffered this, what her next move would be."

Suzanne Walters, who is a victim's advocate and heads the Lincoln Trail domestic violence program, is also alarmed by the judge's decision that she says has become standard practice in Kentucky courts. "I see it on a weekly basis," she said.

Walters, who was a battered woman herself, says that abusive relationships are more complicated than most judges realize, that it is not always easy for a woman to walk away.

"She has no money coming in, she has no job coming in, she has no support of family for friends due to isolation," said Walters, "and the only person trying to contact her is the perpetrator." Research shows that it can take up to seven tries before an abused women finally ends the relationship. "It's an entire process and when you go to walk out, you walk out in steps."

In her cramped office in Lexington, Walters, who meets and helps battered women every day as they arrive in the court house says there is a solution, "The solution is, we need housing, we need transportation, we need jobs for women and we need to see the perpetrators of the violence in jail."