Lawmaker to continue focus on domestic violence issues

      A lawmaker with decades of experience in law enforcement plans to file more legislation meant to help victims of domestic violence in ways he wished he could have during his career. 

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

      Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) said in his career, including as Joplin’s Police Chief, he was often frustrated at seeing how abusers used the court system to continue to intimidate and persecute victims.

      “What you’re looking at is … my efforts to remedy things that I’ve seen go wrong, things that I believe have been wrong, and to do it in a way that doesn’t undermine the intent of a fair and due process,” said Roberts. 

      “Over the years I found myself dealing with a number of different circumstances wherein I truly thought the right thing to do in protecting the victim, frankly, was not provided for in law.  So I wound up having to explain to victims why I couldn’t do the things that the victim and I both knew were in their best interest.  I watched abusers and, in some cases, their representatives twist, manipulate, take advantage of loopholes, doing things that I think the law provided for but not by intent,” said Roberts.  “It was a result of trying to ensure that we treated both sides of the discussion fairly.  Someone who’s been accused of a crime is innocent until they’re proven guilty, so we do need to make that acknowledgement.  We do need to make sure that they receive due process.  But, if the end result is the other side of that equation is abused or treated unfairly, that doesn’t make any sense.  There’s no balance there.”

      Jennifer Carter Dochler with the Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence says the issues the bill would address are ones seen time and time again in cases throughout Missouri.

      “Individuals who are abusive are very good at finding any loophole in the protections that we’ve helped establish.  This bill is absolutely trying to address multiple loopholes that have been identified that prevent the court from doing their best at protecting victims.”

      Roberts proposes specifying that when a person receives notice from a court that a hearing will be held on an order of protection against them, that serves as notification of any orders the court issues on the date of that hearing.  He said this is because often a person who is the subject of an order of protection will violate it, then say in their defense that they didn’t attend the hearing and therefore didn’t know the order had been put in place.  He said this amounts to pleading ignorance, and case law has supported this defense.

      “What I’m trying to do is remove the ambiguity.  You know you’ve been charged.  You’ve been made aware of the hearing.  I think the presumption needs to be the person did, in fact, get notified, not accept the presumption that they didn’t,” said Roberts.

      Carter Dochler said by the time an order of protection hearing is held, a victim has, “already asked the court for safety, and so let’s try to reduce a burden that we have continued to hear, over the years, creates safety issues.”

      Another provision would allow victims to testify in court via video conferencing.  Carter Dochler said in addition to victims having to make time to go to court over and over, each time having to incur costs for things like travel and childcare, there are many safety concerns for them when testifying in court.  Allowing them to provide testimony over video would be a simple fix.

      “Their abusive partner is going to know exactly when they’re going to be there, what time.  Although some courts try to put safety precautions in place … there’s still a safety risk for someone parking, walking into the courthouse, having to wait, how they’re going to leave,” said Carter Dochler.

      Roberts called the video conferencing language one of the pieces of the bill he’s the most committed to, because he’s seen that victims can often be reluctant to testify.

      “It’s difficult to describe, for those of us who’ve never experienced it, what it must be like to be the victim of repeated, and in some cases, vile abuse, to have to sit in the same room with [the person responsible] and have their lawyer pick you apart or have them staring at you with the intent of intimidating you,” said Roberts.  “How many people don’t show up to court because they don’t want to experience that?  How much fear does that create in the mind of somebody who maybe had it in mind that they were going to go forward and then it comes down to the reality of facing somebody in the same room?”

      The bill would also specify that victims and their witnesses don’t have to reveal home or workplace addresses when testifying in court, unless the court deems it necessary.

      “In many cases abusers and wrongdoers will continue to do things that are abusive and wrong for the purpose of advancing their interests in court, and that includes intimidating, threatening, or physically harming witnesses and victims,” said Roberts.  “What we’re really talking about here is giving them some level of comfort that people won’t know where to find them if they step up and do the right thing.”

      A provision the Coalition specifically wanted would clarify that a court can order payment of attorney fees incurred by a victim before, throughout, and after a proceeding.  Carter Dochler said because the current statute includes the word, “or,” an attorney successfully argued in one case that the abuser wouldn’t have to cover fees for all of those time periods.

      “This is another instance where grammar does matter,” said Carter Dochler.  “The intention has always been that somebody could request the respondent to cover reasonable court fees … we’re taking this opportunity to clarify what the intention was.”

      Roberts said based on the response he’s gotten from advocates, he already plans to change some of the language he’s prepared.  In particular, he expects to amend a provision that would bar prosecutors from offering plea bargains to defendants facing certain levels of domestic violence charges. 

      “Maybe we overshot on that,” said Roberts. 

      Other pieces of this bill would require anyone convicted of domestic violence to pay $1,000 to a shelter in the same city or county as the victim; and require that when they are ordered to take a class on domestic violence, they must pay for it.

      In the 2021 session Roberts proposed other domestic violence statute changes that became law in June.  These allowed for orders of protection to be extended for up to a lifetime; covered pets under orders of protection; and expanded the definition of “stalking” to include the use of technology such as GPS and social media, or the use of third parties. 

      Roberts said those pieces of legislation drew something of a “fan following” in Missouri, and for good reason.

      “Many people understand that domestic violence is a real part of everyday life for some people, and hopefully folks have begun to realize that those of us who’ve never been in those situations really cannot understand how horrible it is to live in constant fear, and in the home that’s supposed to be your haven and your safe place,” said Roberts.  “I’ve just seen it for the better part of five decades and the things that we’re talking about here are those kind of individual elements that I feel I can do to maybe remedy some of that.”

      Carter Dochler said the Coalition is grateful for Roberts’ focus on these issues.

      “Representative Roberts is doing an amazing job listening directly from constituents in his community about the barriers they’re experiencing.  He’s also taking his prior law enforcement career and barriers he experienced and he’s trying to address those things, and he’s to be commended,” said Carter Dochler.

      Roberts plans to file this legislation on or after December 1, when prefiling of bills for the 2022 session begins.

Domestic abusers could not legally have guns under House proposal

      Those under a full order of protection or convicted of a crime of domestic violence would no longer be able to have or buy guns under a proposal now in the Missouri House.  Supporters say the bill would mirror Missouri law to federal law and fix a gap unintentionally created by 2016 legislation.

Representative Ron Hicks (Photo: Mike Lear, Missouri House Communications)

      House Bill 473 would require a court, when issuing an order of protection, to order that the subject of that order not be able to have firearms.  Law enforcement would be notified, to make sure the order is followed.  Those convicted of 2nd degree stalking and 4th degree assault would also not be able to possess a firearm.

      “This bill … is not about taking the 2nd Amendment rights away from you, to bear arms.  It’s about protecting the women and children and even men in our state.  This is an issue I believe all of us can agree on,” said bill sponsor Ron Hicks (R-St. Charles).

      House Bill 473 would address an issue with Missouri state law that was exacerbated with the passage of Senate Bill 656 in 2016.

      “This is something that [the House] has tried to tackle for years.  In 2016 I sat in this body when a promise was made by our former speaker … to have this put back in.  It was stricken out of a bill and all I want to do is put it back in,” said Hicks.

      Judy Kile has testified in past years on previous versions of this language.  For six years she has been the Executive Director of COPE, a shelter in Lebanon.  She told the House Committee on General Laws her twin sister was murdered by her abusive husband. 

She said at her sister’s funeral many people told her they wished there was something they could do.  She told lawmakers, “I’m gonna put that on you all.  There’s something you can do.  You can get the guns away during that time that’s so volatile.”

      Kile said that in her work at the shelter she has seen the patterns to domestic violence.  She said for a variety of reasons, a victim often goes back to an abuser a number of times even after an order of protection or conviction has been secured. 

      “If I took a poll I would say that 90-percent of the people – it’s women, mostly, in our shelter – that come into our shelter have had a gun held to their head in their home, and sometimes, a gun held to their children’s head.”

      The Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence has been pushing for passage of this change for years.  Public Policy Director Jennifer Carter Dochler said even before SB 656 in 2016, Missouri had not mirrored the federal Violence Against Women Act.  It gave direction to judges and law enforcement about removing guns from the hands of abusers. 

      What lawmakers unintentionally struck in 2016 had denied those under orders of protection or convicted of domestic assault when they applied for concealed carry permits.  Under the 2016 law those permits are no longer needed.

      “We’re very appreciative of Representative Hicks’ leadership to close a loophole in Missouri’s law and to protect victims of domestic violence,” said Carter Dochler.

      Hicks said following the hearing he spoke to a representative of the NRA and he believes that organization will issue a letter of support for the bill.

      The committee has not voted on the legislation.

Representative, former police chief, proposes tighter stalking laws

      A state representative frustrated by years of having to tell stalking victims he couldn’t help them is sponsoring a bill to toughen Missouri statute.

      Retired Joplin police chief and former Department of Public Safety director Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) says technology has outpaced Missouri law.

Representative Lane Roberts (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications, 01-29-2020)

      “The use of technology – computers, tracking devices, cell phones – to be able to stalk and terrorize victims has grown exponentially over the last decade and our statute simply does not address it,” said Roberts. 

      “Having to look somebody who’s the victim of stalking in the eye and tell them why you can’t do things to help them out, knowing full well that they’re being terrorized by people, is a pretty uncomfortable and frustrating position,” said Roberts.  “Finally, frankly I’m in a position to maybe do something about it.”

      How Missouri law dealing with orders of protection defines stalking only covers the following of a person or unwanted communication.  Roberts’ proposal, House Bill 292, would broaden it to cover things like the use of cell phones, GPS, cameras, or third parties to observe, threaten, or communicate about or to someone.

      The House Committee on Crime Prevention heard from Janice Thompson Gehrke. She about her experience being harassed by her ex-husband, who is now in prison for shooting his ex-fiancé and her boyfriend.  This included sending his roommate to her workplace multiple times on the pretense of conducting business, having friends monitor her on social media, and using her information to have her phone spammed with contest and prize offers.

      “Now this may not seem like a big deal to some, but when you’re dealing with an abuser like him, you know there is a message being sent:  ‘I am watching you, and short of living your life completely off the grid, you’re not going to get away from me.’”

      She spoke of another victim who is being harassed through threats on social media, but the law does not allow her to seek an order of protection because, as she put it, “it’s not technically him.”

      “What we survivors ask is that you give us as many tools as possible to help set up as many roadblocks [as possible] preventing access to us so we have a chance to escape alive,” said Thompson Gehrke.

      Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence Public Policy Director Jennifer Carter Dochler said her organization backs HB 292.

      “Survivors deserve safety so we must continue to keep pace with the ways offenders find loopholes such as those that are remedied in House Bill 292.  We’re very appreciative of Representative Roberts, who filed this legislation after hearing from constituents the barriers they were experiencing with applying for a stalking order of protection,” said Carter Dochler.  “Our statute needs to be revised to keep up with the technological advances abusers have found to stalk their victims.”

      Roberts has also filed a bill (House Bill 744) that would allow victims to seek a lifetime order of protection against an individual.  Orders of protection are only valid for a year at a time.  That has been referred to a committee.

      He said throughout his career he was frustrated many times that he couldn’t do anything to help a victim of stalking and abuse, but one case frequently comes to mind in which a mother and elementary school-aged child were being abused.

      “It was so outrageous, and this individual was so convinced that because he was a man, it was ‘my way or the highway.’  I think what I said to him probably could be interpreted as a threat,” said Roberts.  “That kind of frustration, I think, exists for every police officer.  Every officer who knows that this victim is depending on them and we’re letting them down.”

      The committee has not voted on HB 292.

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.

Governor signs bill to let domestic violence, sexual violence, stalking, victims break leases

Victims of domestic violence would have an easier time getting away from their abusers under bills signed into law this week by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Jim Neely (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bills 243 & 544 would allow a person who has been, is, or is in imminent danger of being a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking to break a lease without penalty.

Often individuals trying to get away from abuse must find a new place to live, but if their name is on a lease that can present an obstacle.

“We hear from advocates and victims on a regular basis that they don’t feel safe where they’re living, they’re not able to get out of their lease,” said Jennifer Carter Dochler, Public Police Director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.  “They’re faced with two choices:  either continuing to live there where they don’t feel safe, or breaking their lease and then having a more difficult time getting another lease and having a financial burden due to that.”

Representative Jim Neely (R-Cameron) said he has owned properties in the past.  He said this new law could help some tenants who find themselves in dangerous positions.

“You don’t want problems within an apartment building to affect other people also, so it’s really a win-win for the person who’s being, so-to-speak, victimized and then the other tenants within a complex,” said Neely.

The legislation also keeps victims from being denied tenancy or evicted because of their status as a victim or potential victim.  Carter Dochler said this is something else that happens often.

“We recognize that landlords want to be able to protect their property and premises, yet sometimes it’s actually putting victims in a not safe circumstance.  We feel like the provisions that were put into this legislation balance both the safety needs of victims and some protections for landlords,” said Carter Dochler.

She said Missourians who need to utilize this new law, or otherwise need help dealing with an abusive situation, can find that help at domestic violence shelters throughout the state.

“That’s part of the role of the advocate, when they’re safety planning with an individual and weighing their options about relocating, is being familiar with laws such as these,” said Carter Dochler.  “Most people in the general public are probably not going to be aware that this law exists until they are connected with a service provider who’s knowledgeable about it and can share that information with them and help them navigate that process.”

Carter Dochler said while there are other issues she wants to see addressed, this is the latest in a series of laws passed by the Missouri General Assembly that will help people dealing with abuse.

“We are incredibly grateful for how much support we have received from the legislature on issues related to rape and abuse.  We had a very successful legislative session in 2018, and although the housing bill – House Bill 243 – is the only piece of priority legislation that passed in 2019, it is, for us, a huge success,” said Carter Dochler.  “This is a piece of legislation that advocates and survivors have been asking for, for many years.”

HBs 243 & 544 also specify what evidence a landlord must accept as proof of a domestic violence or stalking situation, and allow a landlord to access a fee for early termination of a lease.

The language also clarifies Missouri law against the nonconsensual dissemination of private sexual images, better known as “revenge porn.”

The legislation becomes effective August 28.

Earlier story:

Bills would let victims of domestic or sexual violence or stalking get out of leases

Bills would let victims of domestic or sexual violence or stalking get out of leases

When a person is trying to get out of a domestic violence situation one of their needs is a place to live, sometimes for children as well as their self.  If that person is under a lease agreement, property owners are under no legal obligation to release that person.  This could have lasting repercussions both financially and in finding another place to live.

Representative Jean Evans (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bills 243, 544, and 683 Sponsored by Representatives Jim Neely (R-Cameron), Jean Evans (R-Manchester), and Raychel Proudie (D-Ferguson), are aimed at helping such individuals.

“This legislation would go a long way to help victims get a safe place to live,” said Heather Silverman with the National Council of Jewish Women – St. Louis.

Those bills would prevent anyone at risk of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking from being evicted, being denied tenancy, or violating a lease agreement as a result of that risk.  A person who was a victim or in imminent danger of being victimized would be able to use that as a defense if a landlord takes them to court.  The bills would establish what evidence a landlord must accept as proof of such situations.

Kate Heinen with the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault told the House Committee on Children and Families, “In 2014 … 23,000 women and children were denied shelter [in Missouri] because the shelters were full, and shelters are often full because people arrive in one and then realize that there’s going to be a much longer trajectory before they can access safe housing because of their disrupted rental history, because there’s no laws to protect them.

Representative Raychel Proudie (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“Allowing someone to be resolved of their lease agreement when they show some supporting documentation from a local program agency – an order of protection, a court record, anything that’s listed in the bill – is profound.  It’s huge.  It’s going to save lives,” said Heinen.

Heinen said individuals attempting to escape domestic violence often find it difficult to find a new place to live after facing problems getting out of a former residence.

“Either an eviction judgement on their record as a result of experiencing violence and being seen as a troubled tenant, or their rental history looks spotty because they’re seen as a troubled tenant as a result of experiencing violence, and then it makes it impossible for them to rent in their city or other places in their state,” said Heinen.

Representative Proudie’s legislative assistant, Holly Bickmeyer, told the committee she was 14 when she lost her mother due to domestic violence.  She thinks legislation like these bills could have made a difference in her life.

Representative Jim Neely (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I feel like if something like this had been in place to where we would have been able to leave, it’s entirely possible that I would still have my mother today,” said Bickmeyer.  “Speaking as someone who has lived through that, I can tell you how much of a help something like this would have been.”

The committee held hearings on HBs 243 and 544 on Tuesday morning.  There was no opposition voiced.  Daryl Dewe, a registered lobbyist for the St. Louis Apartment Association, joined those testifying in support.

“Our landlords, most of all, we want our tenants to be safe and secure,” said Dewe.  “If that means, in a situation like this, helping them to a safe space more easily, then it’s the right thing to do.”

The bills would allow landlords to impose a termination fee when a tenant or lessee wants to terminate a lease early.

The committee has not yet voted on HBs 243 and 544.

Missouri legislature takes steps toward addressing ‘rape kit’ backlog

The Missouri Legislature this session passed three provisions aimed at addressing the thousands of untested rape kits in the state.

The Missouri legislature passed some measures that would address how forensic examination kits, or “rape kits,” are handled in Missouri. Advocates say the changes will likely result in more prosecutions and cases being closed, and better resolutions for victims. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Those kits include DNA samples and other evidence collected in medical examinations conducted after sex crimes.  The Attorney General’s Office has learned of more than 5,000 forensic evidence kits that have gone untested in Missouri.  The exact number remains unclear as not all agencies in the state responded to that office’s inquiries.

Public Policy Director with the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Jennifer Carter Dochler, said for a kit to be sitting on a shelf when a victim wants it to be tested is, “incredibly traumatizing.”

“When they have come forward and told their story and wanted to participate in the process it really is disheartening,” said Carter Dochler.

The Attorney General’s report suggested among other things that the state secure funding for testing kits; create a statewide tracking system for kits; and create standards for the handling of kits.  Those recommendations were addressed by the legislature in its session that ended in May.

House Bill 1355 includes language that requires the Attorney General’s Office to create a statewide tracking system for forensic evidence from sexual assaults.

That provision was originally sponsored by Representative Donna Lichtenegger (R-Cape Girardeau), who hopes it will send a message to victims in Missouri.

“I think that they’ll know now that we’re really serious in trying to find the person who violated them,” said Lichtenegger.

The budget approved by the legislature also gives the Attorney General’s Office authority to apply for a federal grant to fund a statewide tracking system.  The office should learn in September whether it will receive that grant money.

HB 1355 also requires that hospitals and other medical providers should notify law enforcement when they have a forensic evidence kit; that law enforcement shall take possession of a kit within 14 days of that notification; law enforcement shall take it to a laboratory for testing within 14 days of taking possession of it; and that law enforcement will hold on to a kit for 30 years if the related crime has not been prosecuted.

Carter Dochler says this will bring statewide continuity to how evidence kits are treated.

“We have so many inconsistent practices in the state:  inconsistent practices regarding how soon law enforcement picks up the kit; whether or not the kits are submitted for analysis; definitions we’re using,” said Carter Dochler.  “This should help create much more consistent terminology and practices across the state.”

Carter Dochler said it is hoped that with these provisions becoming law, more sex crimes in Missouri will be prosecuted.

“Especially when we’re talking about serial offenders and being able to show a pattern, having multiple kits and the same DNA among those kits is going to be a very important tool for prosecution,” said Carter Dochler.

She said some issues that still must be addressed concern how a kit will be handled when the victims in the associated case has not made a decision whether to report the crime to law enforcement.  She said many of these “unreported” kits remain in hospitals.

“What we’d like to see is consistent practice across the state regarding unreported kits,” said Carter Dochler.  “There should be a centralized place to store unreported kits across the state.  We should also have a consistent practice of how long are they kept before they’re destroyed.”

She said some of those issues could be addressed in departmental rules and regulations, and might not require future legislative action.  HB 1355 does define “reported” and “unreported” kits, and she said those definitions are a first step toward consistency.

Even with such areas still requiring attention, Carter Dochler said from the Coalition’s point of view, the 2018 legislative session saw the passage of many important laws.

“This was an incredibly successful legislative session for us.  We are incredibly proud and very hopeful for the changes it’s going to make in survivors’ life and experience,” said Carter Dochler.