Clarion Ledger: Divorce reform expected to help domestic violence victims

, The Clarion-Ledger

Starting July 1, abused spouses can more easily get a divorce in Mississippi when the first major change to the state’s antiquated divorce laws in more than 40 years takes effect.

“I absolutely think it’s going to help,” said Sandy Middleton, director of the Center for Violence Prevention, who helped draft and champion the new law, which was subject to fierce debate and had previously been killed in the Legislature before its passage in March. “It’s going to make a big difference for victims trying to escape violent homes.”

Experts and advocates have for years said Mississippi’s divorce laws, little changed over 100 years except for an “irreconcilable differences” ground added in 1976, trap spouses and children in abusive situations and financial limbo. The state’s divorce laws, they said, contribute to domestic violence and abuse.

In March, after much debate and killing similar proposals this year and last, the Legislature passed and the governor signed a measure that allows judges to grant divorce for “spousal domestic abuse” based on testimony of the victim spouse. Previously, the state’s “habitual, cruel and inhuman treatment” ground for divorce had been interpreted to require corroborating evidence or testimony or evidence of a pattern of violence — often difficult to show just by the nature of domestic abuse. The change will allow judges to grant a divorce if they believe a spouse’s claim of abuse, and it clarifies that abuse can include threats, intimidation, emotional and other non-physical abuse if it “rises above the level of unkindness or rudeness or incompatibility or want of affection.”

“Domestic violence is a very private situation going on in someone’s home,” Middleton said. “There’s either no witness, or the only ones who can corroborate are the children, and it’s certainly not a positive experience for children to be involved and testifying.”

Domestic violence is again at the forefront in Mississippi after Willie Cory Godbolt went on a shooting rampage last week in Bogue Chitto that left eight dead after an argument with his estranged wife over their children.

Some lawmakers say they’re hopeful the change in divorce law will help reduce domestic violence and abuse, and that they are contemplating, or open to, other changes in law or policy to address the issue.

More reform contemplated

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, championed the divorce-law reform. She said she’s gotten positive feedback, but is concerned some people “think the law goes a little bit further than it does.”

“It is still a definite step in the right direction,” Doty said. “But just for example, we had drafts of the bill back and forth, and at one point it had language addressing financial abuse — many women are financially unable to leave because their finances are controlled by the husband, especially if they are not working outside of the home.”

Even with the recent reform, Mississippi and South Dakota remain the only two states without a unilateral “no-fault” divorce ground — ensuring getting a divorce in Mississippi remains difficult and expensive and often allowing one spouse to delay finalizing a divorce for years.

Doty said she plans to push again for a form of no-fault divorce, creating long-term separation — two years or more — as a ground.

But similar measures have met strong opposition from many lawmakers and the religious lobby. They have thwarted efforts to make divorce any easier or cheaper in effort to uphold the institution and sanctity of marriage. Yet, Mississippi has continually ranked near the top of states in its divorce rates — seventh highest in one recent study.

Doty said another possibility to address domestic violence is strengthening mandatory reporting laws, requiring health officials to report signs of physical abuse. Lawmakers in recent years have passed similar reform on mandatory reporting of child abuse.

House Judiciary B Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, this year initially killed the domestic abuse divorce reform measure in his committee. But after hearing from victims and advocates, helped draft and pass the measure that will become law in July.

Gipson opposes no-fault divorce measures, but said his committee has helped strengthen domestic abuse and related laws in recent years and he’s open to doing more. Gipson and others have worked with Attorney General Jim Hood’s Domestic Violence Unit in passing such laws.

“We have strengthened the law on no-contact orders, stalking, domestic abuse and enhanced penalties for violating the law,” Gipson said. “The whole concept of human trafficking is somewhat related to this issue of domestic abuse, and that’s one area where it appears there is more we can do.”

Gipson said other areas where the state might look to improve include training law enforcement to detect and deal with domestic violence and human trafficking and in early intervention with potential abusers — perhaps even addressing it in school curriculum.

“A lot of this problem, in my opinion, goes back to the breakdown of the family,” Gipson said. “If a young person is taught in the home early what is right and wrong, that you don’t beat on people — but if somebody is not, or is taught the opposite, it ends up becoming generational. At some point we’ve got to break that cycle.”

Middleton said she agrees, and that her agency is working to help law enforcement and youth with training and education.

“We are working with a couple of local jurisdictions to help law enforcement determine who and what situations are dangerous,” Middleton said. “There is a lethality assessment that can be used in a lot of different settings, to help determine a safety plan for victims and for law enforcement to use in responding to calls. If there are guns in a home, if there has been stalking, strangulation, multiple calls — it might also be that dispatchers can be better trained … It’s scary because the mentality of law enforcement when they respond to the same address multiple times is maybe to get more lax — ‘Oh, well, it’s time to go break up Mr. and Mrs. Smith fighting again.’ It should be the opposite — domestic violence always escalates, every time (police) go up those stairs, it’s getting more dangerous.”

Middleton said her agency also works in early intervention and education with children and young adults.

“We already do those things, prevention programs in some schools, safe dates program, nationally based prevention programs proven to work,” Middleton said. “But we do get some pushback from schools, even with a group like ours offering to do it for free, grant funded. The schools are already required to do so many things already beyond just education. And you obviously can’t change somebody’s upbringing in just two sessions. It’s a challenge, but we certainly would like to deal with more children and young adults.”

Mandatory counseling, treatment

House Judicary A Chairman Mark Baker, R-Brandon, is a former prosecutor and also practiced family law for years. He said more mandatory counseling and treatment in domestic abuse cases could help. Baker said a state law passed eight years ago for police to file affidavits when there is probable cause on behalf of domestic violence victims who don’t want to press charges “was a great change, that brings people into the presence of the court.”

“But here’s where there’s a disconnect,” Baker said. “Nobody, nobody should leave a court with a domestic violence charge without engaging in some form of counseling — either some form of marriage counseling, anger management counseling, domestic violence counseling — if they want that charge dismissed.

“In many cases by the time you get to court, everybody’s just ready to go to the house,” Baker said. “It’s, ‘Oh, it wasn’t that bad. We’re back together and everybody is happy and copacetic.’ That is a recipe for disaster, and the courts have to say, ‘I get it.’ We haven’t figured out what’s lighting the fire, not addressing the crux of the biscuit that got everybody here in the first place. I want to look at making it mandatory for the alleged violator before obtaining any dismissal or non-adjudication to have to engage in some kind of court-approved counseling, and probably in many cases the victim, too. Not to pile on the victim, but to empower them, whether they want it or not, give the means to empower them.”

Contact Geoff Pender at 601-961-7266 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.