Speaking of Women's Rights: Reasonable Fear

Monday, February 7, 2011

Reasonable Fear

Several months ago, Georgia Gunzer filed a petition in Pierce County Superior Court in Washington for a domestic violence protection order. She wanted the order to protect herself from Alphonso Bell, the father of her 10-year old daughter.

In her petition, Ms. Gunzer described how Mr. Bell had physically abused her, made threatening remarks, and violated protection orders that she had obtained before. She said she was worried because Mr. Bell would be getting out of prison in three weeks, and asked for an order “to last as long as it can, due to his violent past.”

On October 22nd, the court denied Ms. Gunzer’s request for a protection order. The court said that there were “real concerns about credibility here in terms of your fear of Mr. Bell.” The reason? Ms. Gunzer had visited Mr. Bell several times while he was in prison.

On January 22nd – three months to the day after she was denied a protection order – Ms. Gunzer was stabbed to death in her home. Alphonso Bell has been charged with her murder.

This tragedy reflects an all too common problem: Domestic violence victims aren’t believed when they express fear of their abusers. If the victim is still in contact with the abuser, the conventional wisdom goes, how can she still be afraid of him? Or if the abuse took place years ago, why is she still afraid?

The reality is much more complicated. Domestic violence is about power and control, and survivors of domestic violence face considerable barriers in breaking free of their abusers. In Ms. Gunzer’s case, she had to be in contact with Mr. Bell to get a parenting plan for their daughter. And the fact that she visited her abuser while he was safely behind bars hardly meant that she wouldn’t be afraid of him after he was released.

We also know that abusers are often emboldened to increase their violence after a protection order is denied. Victims are left feeling they have no choice but to deal with their abuser as best they can, since they were not believed before. Ms. Gunzer told her friends that she felt she “had to be nice” to Mr. Bell after the protection order was denied.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Ms. Gunzer this past week. With our allies at the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Legal Voice has been working in the Washington State Legislature to pass a bill (House Bill 1565) to help domestic violence survivors keep long-term protection orders against their abusers. The bill would address a recent Washington Supreme Court decision in which the court held that a domestic violence survivor can lose a permanent protection order against her abuser unless she shows a current “reasonable fear” of her abuser.

In the case before the state Supreme Court, a woman had obtained a permanent protection order against her husband in 1998. Among other things, she presented evidence that he had threatened her with guns and knocked her teenage daughter unconscious. Years later, the husband asked to have the order lifted because it affected his ability to get a security clearance for work – not because he had done anything to change his behavior. The woman and her daughter strongly opposed lifting the order because they were still in fear of him. But the Court found that the order had to be terminated because their fear was supposedly no longer “reasonable.”

House Bill 1565 would change the law so that victims of domestic violence no longer need to prove that their fear is still “reasonable” to keep a permanent protection order. Instead, the abuser would have to prove that his behavior has changed so that he no longer poses a threat.

You can help. If you live in Washington, please contact your state representatives and urge them to pass House Bill 1565. Tell them that victims of domestic violence need to be able to rely on long-term protection from their abusers. Tell them that the question needs to be “Has the abuser changed?” – not “Why is she still afraid?”

Photo Credit: Zac Doob