Legislative package addresses domestic violence, trafficking

      Missouri legislators passed a package of measures intended to protect victims of sexual and domestic violence and trafficking before the 2022 regular session drew to a close on May 13.  Senate Bill 775 contained language sponsored by several House members, and now awaits action by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Hannah Kelly (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “It’s our big legislative win for this session,” said Jennifer Carter Dochler, who was the legislative liaison for the Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence during the regular session. 

      The bill was handled in the House by Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove), who was glad to see it reach the governor’s desk despite issues in the legislature that created challenges for all legislation this year.

      “At the end of the day the process that our founding fathers set out caused it to be that we were able to come together and accomplish something good despite our differences and that is a beautiful thing that everybody needs to walk away remembering should always be our highest priority.  You’re not going to find a better [issue] to do it on than this.”

      Kelly said of particular importance to her, personally, in SB 775 is the language that establishes the “Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights.”  This seeks to make sure victims know their rights regarding the gathering of evidence and related medical exams; access to incident reports; and protections from intimidation and harassment by an attacker. 

      Kelly said someone important in her life is a victim of rape and, “The provisions in this bill, I believe, would’ve brought justice for this person in a swifter manner.”

      The Bill of Rights portion is meant to, among other things, give some clarity and guidance to victims, who often find themselves traumatized and with no knowledge of what to do or to whom to turn.

All [that a victim knows] is a really horrible thing has happened that nobody ever dreams will happen to them,” said Kelly.  “The heart and soul of it is protecting victims and providing stronger protections and providing education … and what greater cause to unite behind than educating and empowering victims in these horrible situations to know what their rights are and to know the pathway by which they can appropriately seek justice.”  

      SB 775 also clarifies definitions in Missouri law regarding “sexual contact” and “sexual conduct.”  Representative David Evans (R-West Plains) said he dealt with at least one case, during his 28 years as a judge, in which unclear definitions regarding contact with minor victims hindered prosecution.

      “Taking ambiguous law or badly written law and making it clear is important clearly for the victims of crime but also clarifies, which is required in criminal law, exactly what the crime is,” said Evans.  “None of us can be convicted of a crime that’s ambiguous.  That’s protection under due process … it’s good to have specific law especially when you’re dealing with a very serious felony.”

Representative David Evans (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      SB 775 would specify that no persons younger than 18 will be prosecuted for prostitution, and if located by law enforcement while engaged in commercial sexual acts, they will be considered a victim of abuse and referred to the Children’s Division and juvenile officers to receive help.  It also eliminates the requirement that a person under 18 and charged with prostitution must prove they were coerced to avoid conviction.

      These were provisions found in legislation sponsored by Representative Ed Lewis (R-Moberly), who said the laws regarding these individuals needs to be focused on getting them help. 

      “A lot of times a minor can be in that lifestyle and not even know that they’re being trafficked, not even know that they’re being abused.  They think, ‘Well no, I’m doing this of my own free will,’ but they’re not.  They’re being abused and used by some adult for their own gain, and we have to get them the help they need to help them to understand that this is not right,” said Lewis.  “Instead of looking at these people who have come to rescue them as rescuers they can look at them as the enemy and we have to make sure that they get the help that they need so they understand what their outcome should be and how to get back to what we would call a normal life free of abuse.”

      Other related sections deal with prosecuting those who attempted to engage in sexual acts or pornography-related offenses with individuals under 18. 

      The bill also contains language sponsored by Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) dealing with orders of protection.  It would state that a person with an order of protection against them cannot skip a court date regarding that order and then plead ignorance to knowing it was still in effect.  He and Carter Dochler say this defense has often been successful for abusers who would violate an order and then say they didn’t know it was in place because they didn’t attend a hearing. 

      Roberts has often said that this and other proposals he has filed stem from his time in law enforcement – including as Joplin’s police chief and the director of the Department of Public Safety – and times in his career when he couldn’t help a victim because of how the law was written. 

      “Sometimes the law doesn’t serve the victim and sometimes, frankly, the process to provide due process to the person that’s accused ultimately re-victimizes the victim, so it’s been very frustrating to me throughout my [law enforcement] career.  Now I’m in a position to do something about it.”

      Along that same line, Roberts said a provision in SB 775 that is important to him is one that allows victims to testify via video rather than have to appear in court for a domestic violence proceeding. 

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Roberts says too often, a victim is afraid to proceed with prosecution for fear or retribution by their abuser.  This provision addresses that fear; specifically that requiring a victim to appear in court creates an instance in which their abuser will know where and when to find them. 

“If you read the newspapers you will frequently see where a domestic violence case was dismissed because the victim didn’t show up to testify.  I can’t tell you how many times that’s because they were afraid to show up but I guarantee you it’s a significant part of the number of people who don’t show up, and why.”

      With all these issues, legislators have to craft language that protects victims but also allows for due process for those who are accused.  Evans believes with SB 775, Missouri gets closer to finding the right balance between those considerations, “and again that’s one thing I really enjoy doing, is balancing the rights of those that are charged but making it absolutely clear to protect the victims of the crimes as well.  I think we’re getting there.”

      The House vote that sent SB 775 to the governor was 141-0.  Carter Dochler said the Coalition is, “very grateful and really excited [that] at a time where there has been so much turbulence on different issues that everybody could really come together and find agreement on items that would make things better for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, or some other related judicial proceedings.”

SB 775 includes several other provisions, including those that would make it a crime for any coach of minors to abuse a minor, whereas currently law speaks only to high school coaches; extends protections against the release of a victim’s personal information to include their personal email address, birth date, health status, or any information from a forensic testing report; and further restricts when the prior sexual conduct of a witness or victim in a sexual offense case may be inquired about in a legal proceeding.

Prefiled bill aims to make domestic violence victims’ escape from abusers easier

A bill prefiled for the 2020 session of the Missouri General Assembly aims to make it easier for victims of domestic violence to escape abusive environments.

Representative Chris Dinkins (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 1300 would allow individuals, with the assistance of domestic violence shelter staff, to get free copies of birth certificates.

“Individuals who flee the abusive situation often times don’t have the opportunity to grab important documents that they may need later on.  A lot of times they just leave with the clothes on their backs,” said Representative Chris Dinkins (R-Annapolis), the sponsor of House Bill 1300.

“In order to help them get back on their feet the [resource centers] have to try to help them get jobs and get their kids in school, and all these things require a birth certificate,” said Dinkins.  “If you don’t have your driver’s license you need a birth certificate to get your driver’s license.  If you don’t have a bank account, you need some form of identification to set up a bank account … nowadays businesses do direct deposits for paychecks, so you need a bank account in order to receive your payment.”

The Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence’s Public Policy Director, Jennifer Carter Dochler, said such vital documents provide abusers with another way to control their victims.  Withholding them can make it more difficult for a victim to leave.

“Other times we see an abusive partner intentionally destroying those materials.  They know it’s going to be a difficulty for an individual so they intentionally destroy them,” said Carter Dochler.

Having access to birth certificates would be key to ensuring that victims escaping abusive situations don’t have to return to them.

“Once they do take that important step to get away from [an abuser] we need to do everything that we can to keep them from falling back into that trap,” said Dinkins.

Domestic violence shelters in Missouri have been covering the cost of birth certificates for clients who need them but those shelters have limited resources and the cost is becoming an issue for them.

Dinkins offered similar legislation in the 2019 session and it nearly passed, despite being introduced on the last day for filing bills.  Lawmakers heard then that the $15 cost for a new copy of a birth certificate can be prohibitive to victims, who often have little or no money and need that very document in order to get a job.  It is a further burden when they must pay that $15 for each child under their care.

Dinkins said what slowed the bill’s progress in 2019 its estimated cost to the state, which she said was grossly overestimated.

“[The state is] already producing these birth certificates, it’s just the fact that we would no longer be charging the organizations to have them produce these … but they were saying it was going to take two to eight new full-time employees, and I don’t understand how it would take eight new full-time employees to do something that they’re already doing,” said Dinkins.

Dinkins said helping people escaping abuse get back into the work force would further offset any cost the bill could create for the state.

The 2019 bill passed out of the House and out of a Senate committee but was not voted on by the full Senate.  Dinkins is optimistic that this year’s earlier start means the legislation has a better chance of reaching Governor Mike Parson (R).

The legislative session begins January 8.

House considering free birth certificates for individuals escaping domestic violence

House lawmakers are being asked to consider another measure meant to help victims of domestic violence get away from abusers and move on with their lives.

Representative Chris Dinkins (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Often individuals who have left a home where abuse occurs have left behind birth certificates, as well as other documents and identification that they must get new copies of but cannot without those certificates.  The fee to get a new copy is often a burden to a survivor faced with numerous other expenses while trying to start down a new path in life, according to Representative Chris Dinkins (R-Annapolis).

“To come up with $15 per kid to get them enrolled in school is sometimes a pretty [significant] hardship on them,” said Dinkins.

Dinkins is sponsoring House Bill 1135, which would allow people working with a shelter to get free copies of birth certificates.

She was presented with the proposal by the Southeast Missouri Family Violence Council.  Assistant Director Tracy Carroll told the House Committee on Children and Families that abusers often use vital documents in their efforts to control a victim.

“The abuser either burns or throws away or keeps in a lock box their driver’s license, social security, their birth certificate, and so that’s a form of abuse – control, and so what I found was we had to start from the very bottom with them and try to get their identification,” said Carroll.

Carroll said most of the women that come into their shelter need this kind of help.  Last year that included 200 of the 263 people that came in, yet the shelter, which is a nonprofit agency, had no budget for securing new copies of documents.

“We scrounged that money … we were digging through our purses because everybody needs a birth certificate.  They can’t get a job, they can’t send their kids to school,” said Carroll.

In one case Carroll said a mother in the shelter had eight children.  At $15 dollars apiece, that was a particular hardship for her as she tried to get them enrolled in school while escaping an abusive situation.

Carroll said any cost the State of Missouri sees would be offset by victims being able to get their lives on track.

“They’ll be able to be employed, they’ll be able to get an education, they’ll be able to vote,” said Carroll.  “Most of the women in our shelter have not been allowed to vote.”

Committee chair Sheila Solon (R-St. Joseph) said people escaping abuse have good reason for not having these documents on hand.

“I know when I’ve had constituents call my office and it’s a domestic violence situation, I always tell them, ‘Don’t go back home.  Get to the shelter,’ so that’s probably, most of the time, why they don’t have their documents,” said Solon.  “They’re doing the wise thing and not returning and trying to retrieve those.”

An individual would have to provide documentation from a shelter to prove that he or she is involved with such an agency.  The bill would only allow the fee for each eligible individual’s birth certificate to be waived one time.

The committee has not voted on HB 1135.