Those with professional and/or personal experience in dealing with domestic violence know all too well that this society loves to blame the victim, pinning the responsibility on the abused person rather than the abusive partner (of either gender). If the abused partner doesn't immediately sever the relationship after that first punch is thrown, it's assumed that he or she must enjoy it.
Without delving too deeply into the myriad reasons why partners don't leave dangerous relationships — including financial insecurity, lack of close friends or family, fear of losing child custody and fear of being stalked — perhaps we should first consider the flaws in our system that obstruct people actively trying to flee domestic violence.
Buncombe County is fortunate to boast competent prosecutors and judges who take this issue very seriously, and organizations like Helpmate and Pisgah Legal Services, which aid domestic-violence victims from all walks of life. Not all areas are quite so lucky.
But this becomes a moot point if you're a victim who's seeking a restraining order over the weekend. Buncombe County's 28th judicial district is one of two in Western North Carolina that don't give citizens a way to file for a restraining order between Friday afternoon and Monday morning. That leaves just two options: inaction or pressing criminal charges against the offender. At best, the first option produces no result; at worst, it could prove fatal. The second option poses both high emotional hurdles and safety risks, as those arrested may be released within hours — perhaps returning home more enraged than before. Additionally, those merely trying to leave a relationship may not be ready to take such a drastic step, especially when children are involved.
Restraining orders, on the other hand, grant legal sanctuary from harassment or threats. Aside from prohibiting physical or verbal contact, a restraining order can also temporarily deny an offender possession of dwellings, vehicles, firearms and even custody of children and pets. This still creates some upheaval, but being mired in the civil court system is less complicated and often less intimidating for people seeking respite from abuse.
Each individual domestic-violence situation is unique, and often, victims' best initial recourse is simply to escape from the perpetrator before even considering punishment. Furthermore, the most hazardous time for an abused partner is after he or she has left the relationship: An estimated 70 percent of women living alone are stalked by former male partners, and a devastating number wind up dead at their hands.
Those with restraining orders can report any violations to the police, and the reports are generally given high priority, as the violation is considered an offense against the state as well.
It's important to note that weekends can also be a particularly risky time in violent households, as family members are more likely to be home from school or work. According to the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence's list of domestic-violence-related homicides in the state in 2008 and '09, more than a third of the 137 total incidents occurred on Saturdays or Sundays. At least half of all weekend homicides (and all of the ones resulting in murder-suicides) involved guns, which might have been confiscated if the victims had had restraining orders.
Victims and advocates for overcoming domestic violence face enough frustrations as it is; it behooves the legal system to be their ally, not an obstacle. In the interest of building a safer community, district judges should consider changing the restriction on weekend restraining orders; any cost to the city could hardly outweigh the potential cost in human lives. And if this helped victims realize that the system is working with them, perhaps we wouldn't need to ask why she didn't leave earlier.
Asheville resident Laura Eshelman is outreach coordinator for North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, a Helpmate volunteer and also a member of the Asheville-Buncombe Family Violence Prevention and Sexual Violence Prevention task forces.
An estimated 70 percent of women living alone are stalked by former male partners, and a devastating number wind up dead at their hands.