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.

House approves increased protections for domestic violence victims

      The House has voted to make several changes in state law meant to make victims of domestic violence safer.  It’s sponsored by a man who, during his career in law enforcement, was often frustrated by how laws limited what he could do to help victims.

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

      “This bill seeks to plug some of the gaps in our laws that allow abusers to circumvent the system and continue to use the system actually to further abuse their victims,” said Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin).

      A key provision of Roberts’ House Bill 1699 would specify that a defendant in an abuse case will be considered to have been notified of an order of protection if they are notified in any reasonable way.  In effect, this would make clear that orders of protection remain place until otherwise ordered by a court.  

      “What happens today is that when somebody files for an ex parte order and then a hearing is scheduled the temporary order stays in effect until the hearing.  If the abuser chooses not to show up in court and later pleads ignorance, he didn’t know what went on in court, there have been some successful defenses to violating the order because of this so-called ignorance.  What this bill does is say that when you get served that temporary, those provisions are going to remain in effect and they don’t expire simply because the hearing is being held.  Those protections go on and the individual can’t plead ignorance.”

      Jennifer Carter Dochler with the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said this was the provision that was the most exciting.

      “Although all of them are going to have an important impact … that has been such a gap and has created so many safety issues for survivors,” said Carter Dochler.

      Another portion would allow victims in domestic violence cases to testify via video conference.  Roberts says often, domestic cases are dismissed because victims refuse to testify.

      “It’s not because the victim doesn’t want to be there.  The truth of the matter is in many cases the victim is simply afraid to be in the same room.  The victim does not want the abuser to know where they’re going to be at a particular time, and so it’s important that we give this person some kind of security if we possibly can,” said Roberts.

      Carter Dochler said victims who testify in court now often take great measures to plan for their own safety during that appearance. 

      “When I did court advocacy … we would have the bailiff walk us out and things like that, so just the ability to be able to teleconference in for getting your order of protection is also something that will be incredibly helpful for the safety of the victim, and may also increase the likelihood of somebody feeling comfortable continuing to pursue an order of protection,” said Carter Dochler. 

She said another hurdle for victims testifying for an order of protection, sometimes, is finding childcare, and video conferencing could negate that issue.

      HB 1699 would also specify that courts cannot make a victim or their family reveal in court the victim’s current address or workplace unless necessary. 

“This is something that you’d think would be common sense,” said Roberts.

      Earlier versions of the legislation had caused concern for some lawmakers, specifically that the video testimony provision would violate the constitutional right of accused abusers to face their accusers in court.  Roberts worked with other legislators to deal with issues in the bill leading to the version the House passed.

Representative Ian Mackey (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “I was a little hesitant at first, I’ll admit.  I’m somebody who likes to protect the rights of those who wish to confront their accusers in court,” said Representative Ian Mackey (D), who is an attorney in St. Louis.  “Through conversations with [Roberts] and other folks involved in this issue I think the needle was threaded just as finely and carefully as it could be.  I think this protect victims.  It also protects the accused.  It’s a great product.”

      “The bill handler made some changes and I just think it made a much better bill.  It was a good bill to begin with but it needed some changes.  He did that,” said Robert Sauls, a Kansas City Democrat who is a former Jackson County Prosecutor and public defender. 

      Sauls told Roberts, “I appreciate your willingness to listen and the changes you made.”

      HB 1699 would also specify that when a defendant is ordered to pay the victim’s attorney fees, that order covers the entire proceeding; and that a person convicted of domestic assault who is ordered to attend a batterer-intervention program will be responsible for paying for that program.

      Carter Dochler said the legislation would make a number of small changes in Missouri law each of which would make a big difference in the lives of victims.

      “I really appreciate Representative Roberts’ commitment to finding gaps and figuring out what he can do to close them,” said Carter Dochler. 

      The House voted 147-0 to send the proposal to the Senate.

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.

House votes to offer lifetime orders of protection to domestic abuse victims

      The House wants victims of domestic abuse to be able to get lifetime orders of protection against their abusers.  That would be possible under a bill sent to the Senate this week.

      Orders of protection are generally only effective for one year.  House Bill 744 would allow a judge, after a review of the case, to issue one for the lifetime of the abuser.

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

      It is sponsored by former Department of Public Safety Director and former Joplin Police Chief, Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin).

      “I spent a great deal of my life having to look women in the eye and explain to them why I could not do what I knew needed to be done to help them, and I had to leave them living in fear and could not put a stop to it.  Finally I find myself in a position to actually do something about it,” said Roberts.  “If I never do anything more in this body than pass this particular bill I will still have made a contribution that I’ll take home and feel good about.”

      Under the bill a judge considering whether an order should last for a lifetime would consider the evidence of the case; the history of abuse, stalking, and threatening; an abuser’s criminal record; previous orders of protection; and whether the respondent has violated probation or parole, or previous orders of protection.

      Lane said the women who bravely came to testify on his bill shared stories of horrific abuse that had continued for years.

      “26-week pregnant women being beaten with a shovel, women who were sexually abused in a hospital while they were medicated, ex-fiancées being shot and paralyzed, women beaten so badly that they have to have facial reconstruction,” said Roberts.

      “The victims of this find themselves going to court every single year when it goes on and on.  In one case one of these victims has been to court 68 times in nine years,” said Roberts. 

      Kansas City representative Mark Ellebracht (D) is an attorney who has counseled women who are experiencing abuse.  He said it is more than frustrating to know that they must go back to court every year to deal with the case.

Representative Mark Ellebracht (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “Often when they go back to court, their abuser [can represent himself], which means he gets to cross-examine her and ask her very sensitive, very personal questions and harass her again in front of a court because of the way the system works.  This bill is designed to fix that,” said Ellebracht.  “It’s a very, very good bill.”  

      The bill would also allow courts to include pets in dealing with domestic abuse.  This would include awarding possession of a pet and considering abuse or threatened abuse of a pet in making decisions in the case.  Legislators said often abusers threaten or harm a pet in an effort to control or terrorize a victim.

       The House voted 151-2 to send that legislation to the Senate.

Earlier stories:

Lifetime order of protection would be possible under House proposal

Representative, former police chief, proposes tighter stalking laws

Pronouncers:

Ellebracht = EL-eh-brockt

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.

Lifetime order of protection would be possible under House proposal

Victims of domestic abuse would be able to get lifetime orders of protection from abusers under a bill offered in the Missouri House.

      Missouri law allows for orders of protection that last for one year.  That means victims who want continued protection must go back to court annually to seek extensions.  This forces them to repeatedly face their abuser and relive what they went through.  Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin), former chief of the Joplin Police and director of the Department of Public Safety, says that’s wrong.

Lisa Saylor told House members this represents the paperwork she has accumulated since 2011, in dealing with the court system while working to protect herself from an abuser.

      “There are people who deal with abusive friends, ex-friends, ex-boyfriends, family members, and they never get respite,” said Roberts.  Try to envision what it would be like to have to deal with something like this for two or three years and every year you’ve got to go back and get a protection order, repeatedly.  Then it dries up for a couple of years.  The protection order expires, the individual comes back, takes up where they left off, the police are called.  You get an officer who’s never heard of this before or you go in front of a judge who’s never seen it before, and the whole nightmare starts over.”

      “I can tell you from personal experience that when you have to look a woman in the eye and explain to her why the law won’t protect her, it is very difficult, and they shouldn’t have to live that way,” said Roberts.  “I think this is frankly a fairly significant step to correct what I think should be common sense.”

      Janice Thompson Gehrke is a survivor and now works with and for victims.  She told the House Committee on Judiciary people often ask her why they shake when they have to go to court, including the repeated appearances to renew an order of protection.

      “What’s happening is your body’s natural response of an adrenaline dump telling you, you are in danger.  You’re in danger because you’re putting yourself in the same place as a person that is a real danger to you.  In spite of every instinct in your body telling you to run, here you are doing what you have been told are the necessary steps to keep legal protections for yourself in place,” said Thompson Gehrke. 

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

      Lisa Saylor told the committee that since 2011 she has spent more than $45,000 in court costs, in part from having to repeatedly renew orders of protection.  If she doesn’t retain an attorney she runs the risk that her abuser could personally cross-examine her in a courtroom.

      “I was exhausted from my fight mentally, physically, emotionally, financially, just trying to stay safe from my abuser.  How much could one system put a victim through and expect them to survive this journey?” asked Saylor.

      The legislation, House Bill 744, would allow an order of protection to be in place through the life of the abuser.  The committee has not voted on it.

Pronunciations:

Gehrke = (GER-kee)

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.

Proposal would give state law enforcement, judges power to take guns from domestic abusers

House lawmakers are being asked to consider an effort late in the session to let judges take guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.

Representative Tracy McCreery (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

State law does not prevent those with full orders of protection against them from possessing firearms.  Federal law does, but that means federal agents have to enforce and prosecute such violations.  Advocates say that leaves many Missouri victims of domestic violence in terror, and many have been murdered, because their abusers were allowed to keep their guns.

House Bill 960 would match the state law to federal so that state judges could require that abusers not be allowed to possess or purchase firearms, and so that state authorities could enforce those orders.

The bill is sponsored by St. Louis representative Tracy McCreery (D).

“Adoption of this federal standard would still allow for constitutional carry, but would prevent perpetrators of domestic violence from owning a firearm,” McCreery told the House Committee on General Laws.  “I think that it’s important to empower local officials and believe that this bill’s passage would enhance our ability to assist victims.”

Colleen Coble, Director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said Missouri needs a state law against gun possession by those convicted of violence against family members, and those who have an order of protection against them after a full court hearing.

“As a result of that, 57 Missourians – women – paid for that with their lives in the last year,” said Coble.  “This is not a Second Amendment issue.  This is a homicide prevention issue.  This is about public safety, and this is about accountability for those who are known by law enforcement officers to be the most likely to continue to escalate and use violence against their victims:  those who harm family members.”

The committee heard emotional testimony from several who had lost loved ones to domestic abusers who used firearms.  Carla West, the Court Advocate at New House Domestic Violence Shelter in Kansas City, said her sister was shot to death by her husband in 2013.  He had prior convictions for domestic assault.

“My brother-in-law, other than being abusive to my sister, was pretty much a law-abiding citizen,” said West.  “I believe with all my heart that if there would have been a law preventing him from having a gun he would have thought twice about having one, and my sister might still be here today.”

McCreery, who said she owns guns herself, said this issue stems from the passage of Senate Bill 656 in 2016, which allowed for constitutional carry in Missouri, effectively replacing the concealed carry permit system that had been in place.

“Within that permitting process for concealed carry was where law enforcement had the ability to deny someone a firearm due to a past conviction, so when we wrote that law and went from concealed carry to constitutional carry, the unintentional loophole that was created is we no longer had that permitting process, so that’s the loophole that was created, and I do believe it was unintentional,” McCreery said.

The legislation has Republican backing.  As Dardenne Prairie Republican Ron Hicks told McCreery, “As one who, as you know, would definitely get on you about something [if I thought you were violating Second Amendment] rights on, I can agree with you on this.  I think it’s a loophole that might’ve been overlooked,” said Hicks.

No one spoke against the bill in the committee hearing.

Previous years’ versions of the bill have been sponsored by a Republican.  Each was heard by a House committee but did not advance.

With only four weeks remaining in the session, backers are hopeful that the language of HB 960 can be added to other legislation that is closer to passage.

The Committee has not voted on HB 960.

Story on last year’s legislation: 

Bipartisan House bills would close ‘loophole’ that allows domestic abusers to have guns

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.