How do you prove "reasonable" fear in a court of law? How much fear is enough fear? What happens when, as a survivor of domestic violence, you inadvertently don't act "fearful enough" of your former abuser? And what can we do legislatively to correct the misinformation about violence against women that continues to hover over this country like a dark cloud? As we attempt to dispel the myth that the Super Bowl is responsible for a rise in domestic violence, with the fact that women are abused, harassed and murdered every day of the year, more often than not by men they know, these questions take on a powerful significance. In light of recently introduced legislation in Georgia which seeks to re-classify rape, stalking and domestic violence victims as "accusers" while leaving the classification of all other crime victims alone, a new bill in Washington State offers a ray of light in an otherwise foggy arena. The bill, HB 1565, seeks to change the rules regarding domestic violence protection orders to make it easier for victims of violence to keep those orders against their abusers.
The bill has received more attention as of late after the recent awful case of Georgia Gunzer in Washington State made headlines. Just a few months ago, Gunzer sought protection for herself and her ten year old daughter from the girl's father, Alphonso Bell, a convicted felon. She filed a petition in Pierce County Superior Court, according to Legal Voice, for a protection order based on domestic violence. Zach Doob, writing on the blog for Legal Voice, outlines the scenario,
In her petition, Ms. Gunzer described how Mr. Bell had physically abused her, made threatening remarks, and violated protection orders that she had obtained before. She said she was worried because Mr. Bell would be getting out of prison in three weeks, and asked for an order “to last as long as it can, due to his violent past.
On October 22nd, 2010 the judge denied Gunzer's request for a restraining order citing concerns that her fear was not "credible." In the transcript of the hearing, Pierce County Court Commissioner Mark Gelman questions Gunzer about her visits to Bell in prison and how authentic her fear of Bell truly is;
Gelman: "You've been out to that facility on at least six occasions."
Gunzer: "Yes, I have."
Gelman: "That shows that you've got some real concerns about credibility here in terms of your fear of Mr. Bell."
Gunzer: "I'm sure it does."
On this basis, Georgia Gunzer was refused her protection order against the man who formerly had abused and harassed her. On January 22nd, 2011, exactly three months after the judge's decision, Gunzer's ten-year-old daughter found her mother stabbed to death in their home. Alphonso Bell is charged with her murder.
You may ask, why Gunzer visited Bell in prison if she was so terrified of him? It doesn't take an attorney or a judge to assume that she tamped down her fear in order to meet with him about their daughter. According to Legal Voice, Gunzer saw Bell to work on a parenting plan for when he was released.
Why would a judge assume that Gunzer's fear was unjustified simply because she visited the father of her daughter in prison, while he was safely behind bars?
In essence, it was the judge's decision not to believe Gunzer which led to his denial of a restraining order. He's far from alone. It is one of the more common shared societal beliefs; a lack of trust that victims of domestic violence are to be trusted. As Doob writes:
This tragedy reflects an all too common problem: Domestic violence victims aren’t believed when they express fear of their abusers. If the victim is still in contact with the abuser, the conventional wisdom goes, how can she still be afraid of him? Or if the abuse took place years ago, why is she still afraid?
It's why HB 1535 was introduced with the help of Legal Voice and the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The bill seeks to turn the tables on the burden of proof, so to speak. Instead of making it incumbent upon a victim to prove or justify her fear of a former abuser, in order to extend a protection order, the proof must come from the abuser. If the abuser poses no threat, he (or she) can offer evidence as to why. In Gunzer's case, had the burden of proof fallen on Bell, he would have been compelled to offer evidence that he was of no threat to Gunzer presently or in the future or, simply, the protection order would have been extended.
As it stands, the policy that a victim must prove that she's got enough justifiable fear of her abuser to warrant some protection from the court system, stems from a Washington State Supreme Court decision. The case involved a formerly abusive husband and father who moved away, attempted to get work in which he needed security clearance but couldn't because of his permanent restraining order. Though his victim and her daughters were still fearful, the court found that their fear wasn't reasonable and removed the protection order.
A restraining order is certainly no substitute for other forms of resources or help many victims or survivors can and should seek out in order to protect themselves, but it is an important tool. As we continue to see legislative attacks on the victims of crimes ( crimes which most often affect women - domestic violence, rape and stalking and harassment ), there needs to be a shift not only in our collective consciousness (ie, women and girls who claim they are victims of violence, sexual or otherwise, must be believed until there is proof otherwise), but legislatively as well. Removing the word "victim" from state law when it applies only to rape and domestic violence victims and surreptitiously inserting the descriptor "forcible" in order to qualify rape in a federal bill must be wiped out by bills such as Washington State's HB 1535 which may have saved Georgia Gunzer's life, had it been the law of the land.