April 4, 2013

Bill would aid domestic violence victims in divorce proceedings

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Sen. Colleen Lachowicz was out knocking on doors while campaigning last year when a woman told her she was a victim of domestic violence who was having trouble getting a divorce.

click image to enlarge

Sen. Colleen Lachowicz, D-Waterville

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

The woman fled back to family in Maine and had registered to vote, changed her driver's license, landed a job and received a protection from abuse order.

But because she hadn't lived here at least six months, she could not file for divorce.

"This didn't make any sense to me," said Lachowicz, a Waterville Democrat and social worker.

Maine is one of 27 states that require people to be residents for at least six months before a divorce can be granted, said Rep. Kimberly Monaghan-Derrig, D-Cape Elizabeth. Six states, including Vermont, require only three months. Lachowicz's bill, L.D. 869, would allow someone to file for divorce as long as they are a Maine resident and have a protection from abuse order.

Mary Ann Lynch, government and media counsel for the state judicial branch, said she's concerned that people will flock to Maine to get a divorce if there's no waiting period. While she testified neither for nor against the bill, she said family courts are already bogged down with heavy workloads.

"We are concerned there may be at least some level of forum shopping that could create an impact on us," she said.

Julia Colpitts, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, suggested that Maine switch to a three-month period.

"Rapid resolution of family matters set clear ground rules," she said. "We know often there are children involved."

The Judiciary Committee took testimony on two other domestic violence bills Thursday. Lachowicz also sponsored L.D. 871, which would allow domestic violence victims to have the filing fees waived when they get a divorce.

"The thing that keeps them there the most is how are they going to be able to afford to live," she said.

The filing fee is $120 and can already be waived or lowered for those who demonstrate they are impoverished, Lynch said. She estimated that such a waiver could cost the state General Fund $100,000.

The other bill, L.D. 687, is sponsored by Rep. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford. Her bill would allow judges to include pets in temporary protection from abuse orders. As it is now, pets are included in final orders, but not temporary orders.

"Abusers will often abuse pets to terrorize family members," she said.

The committee will hold a work session on the bills in the coming weeks.

Susan Cover -- 621-5643


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