Significantly updated protections for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault are in a measure advanced this week in Missouri.
A new law that allows judges to issue lifetime orders of protection against abusers and modifies the definition of stalking was sponsored by Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin, Sens. Elaine Gannon, R-De Soto, and Holly Rehder, R-Scott City. It was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Mike Parson.
The bill extends orders of protection for up to a lifetime in extreme situations, includes pets in protection orders and expands the definition of stalking to include technology like GPS devices and social media, as well as the use of third parties. The new law takes effect Aug. 28.
“I think there was some vindication with this legislation,” Roberts said. “For many years, I thought that the limitations that we had were fundamentally wrong in their own right, and I’m in the position to fix what I know is wrong. The experience through my career has given me some perspective that allows me to look at the law, and I’ve seen what doesn’t work. I get this opportunity to perhaps do something about it.”
Under the new bill, judges have the option to grant orders of protection for longer lengths of time depending on the potential threat. Those with protection orders against them would have to prove that they have been rehabilitated and are no longer a threat in order for it to be lifted early. The judge is prohibited from lifting the order until that’s accomplished, according to the details.
The orders are also set to be automatically renewed.
Advocates with Lafayette House, a private nonprofit serving adults, children and families experiencing domestic violence, sexual assault or substance use disorders, lauded the bill’s passage. Louise Secker, director of community development for Lafayette House, said that in a way, the new law gives abuse survivors a piece of their own power back, which is one of the goals.
“The lifetime protection order being made into law, from the view of the Lafayette House, is a huge win for survivors of domestic violence,” she said. “Because we’ve seen, and I think the Legislature recognized through testimony of victims, that oftentimes you had a victim of domestic violence going back and facing an extreme case of abuse in court year after year after year to get the order to stay in place.”
The current law requires victims to return to court every year to renew the order of protection.
“In these cases where the perpetrator has proven to be really unstable, you’re taking a risk every time you show up in court at a time and a date that he knows you’re going to be there,” Secker said. “It elevates the risk of your situation over and over again. This (bill) allows that to defuse those situations.”
Secker said orders of protection are significant because at the least, they establish a pattern of behavior and the fact that there’s been an attempt at reporting that to law enforcement.
“It’s recognition by the courts that the situation is dangerous enough that the victim needs protection, so it establishes that in the eyes of the law,” she said. “It also gives the police the tool to make an arrest if there’s a violation of that order of protection. It gives the victim something at least to have in place to where, if there is a violation, then it helps build that case against the abuser.”
Some of the language in the bill was crafted from legislation previously filed by Roberts, a retired Joplin police chief and former director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety.
Roberts said Wednesday that the bill’s passage will be one of the biggest highlights of his political career but that a bulk of the credit should go to survivors Lisa Saylor and Janice Thompson, who testified before lawmakers in Jefferson City about their experiences.
Their testimony moved many committee members to tears, according to Roberts. He cited stories of having to return to court repeatedly to get protection orders against their abusers and the toll taken by living in fear.
Roberts said Saylor had been to court more than 70 times within a 10-year period to protect herself and her family from her abuser. That effort, Roberts said, cost Saylor $40,000 of her own money.
The current stalking law dealing with orders of protection only covers the following of a person or unwanted communication. The new bill broadens the definition to cover things such as the use of cellphones, GPS devices, cameras or third parties to observe, threaten or communicate about or to someone.
“You can no longer use a device or any kind or technology to stalk your victim, nor can you have a third party do it on your behalf,” Roberts said. “Making sure that the course of conduct definition met the needs of today and the technology that’s available, was important.”
Lafayette House in Joplin serves 1,200 people each year from a seven-county area in Southwest Missouri. Secker said they’ve seen an increase in abusers using electronic means to stalk their victims. The new law helps bring the definition of stalking into the 21st century.
“When you say the word stalking, you may have this impression that it’s someone who parks outside of your house and is everywhere you show up to be,” Secker said. “But with electronics, they can be everywhere you are, all of the time.”
Gannon, the De Soto senator, added language to the bill to allow orders of protection to cover pets, which she said could be a tool against people who might threaten a pet as a way to emotionally hurt its owner. A protection order may include an order of possession of the pet where appropriate, as well as any funds needed to cover the medical costs resulting from abuse of the pet.