The Herald-Sun, April 21, 2012 by Elizabeth Froehling
On May 8, North Carolinians will be asked whether to amend the state’s constitution to provide that the only valid and recognized domestic legal union is a marriage between one man and one woman. If Amendment One passes it will harm all unmarried couples, including unmarried women who are victims of domestic violence, as well as their children and families.
Proponents of the amendment say that the institution of marriage is in danger and that the amendment is necessary to protect marriage and families. Despite the fact that North Carolina law already prohibits same-sex marriages, proponents say it is imperative to vote for the amendment. They ignore, however, the real danger Amendment One poses on existing protections for domestic violence victims and their families.
North Carolina has long recognized that domestic violence victims deserve protection, whether or not they are married to their abusers. Under North Carolina’s 50B statute, victims of domestic violence who have had a “personal relationship” with the abuser have certain protections. “Personal relationship” encompasses a spouse, former spouse, current or former household members, unmarried persons of the opposite sex who are living or have lived together, persons who have a child in common, or a persons of the opposite sex who are currently in or were in a dating relationship.
If Amendment One passes courts may no longer recognize unmarried couples as having a “personal relationship.” Unmarried domestic violence victims could be denied domestic violence protective orders. This is not just hypothetical; it happened in Ohio when a similar, but less restrictive, amendment was passed.
Protective orders under the 50B statute are vital for victims of domestic violence, married or unmarried, who seek independence from their abusers. Under the 50B statute a judge can order an abuser to refrain from abusing the victim, the victim’s children, the victim’s family or anyone in the victim’s household. A judge can order that the victim have temporary custody of children, as well as temporary possession of the home. If Amendment One passes unmarried victims of domestic violence could lose these protections, leaving them even more vulnerable.
In Virginia, where a similar amendment was considered and subsequently passed, domestic violence programs frantically tried to come up with ways to get more victims into shelters because victims could no longer access protective orders that kept them safe in their own homes. Our state will see the same problem. An increase in the need for shelter by unmarried victims of domestic violence means more money spent on sheltering while abusers are allowed to stay in their homes. It also means that already strained shelter programs may have to turn away victims fleeing abuse.
Proponents of the amendment say its passage won’t negatively impact domestic violence victims. But we know the far-reaching harmful consequences are a real possibility. In Ohio, after the passage of an amendment less restrictive than the one being considered in North Carolina, defense attorneys successfully argued that domestic violence laws did not apply for unmarried people because the state’s Constitution didn’t recognize a special status for unmarried people in a marriage-like relationship.
We cannot afford to gamble on domestic violence victims. More than 50,000 North Carolinians seek domestic violence services each year. And since the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence started to document domestic violence related homicides in 2002, North Carolina has lost at least 788 women, men and children to domestic violence. Many of the homicides were committed by someone to whom the victim was not married.
Victims of domestic violence deserve the right to protect themselves and their children. The real danger of Amendment One is to domestic violence victims, their children, and loved ones should the amendment pass. Vote AGAINST Amendment One on May 8.
Elizabeth Froehling is executive director of North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence.