By Dave Rogers
---- — AMESBURY — Looking to strengthen state domestic violence laws, Attorney General Martha Coakley and House Speaker Robert DeLeo yesterday visited the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, known nationally for its efforts to protect victims of domestic abuse and keep offenders behind bars.
The visit comes as Domestic Violence Awareness Month winds down.
The heightened interest in reviewing current domestic violence and restraining order laws comes after the shocking murder of Waltham resident Jennifer Martel in August allegedly at the hands of her boyfriend, Jared Remy, son of Red Sox television announcer Jerry Remy.
DeLeo, who spoke to a boardroom packed with state lawmakers, local officials and area police, echoed statements he made shortly after the murder, saying he reached out to Coakley about whether she’d be interested in partnering with him in changing laws that would further protect domestic violence victims. He said he hopes to come up with legislation, with Coakley’s input, by the end of the current legislative session that would improve the system.
“How can we make the system better? Is it the court, is it police, is it the Legislature, is it money, is it wording in a statute? Whatever it may be, I think that we as a Legislature, as a commonwealth have to do something. How can we make it better?” DeLeo said.
Immediately following Martel’s murder, Coakley also made it known she favored reviewing domestic violence laws. Since then she and DeLeo have been looking at the laws currently on the books, what’s working and what’s lacking. She called yesterday’s visit to the crisis center part of her research in terms of what is working.
Coakley lauded the center’s ability to provide support to victims who are in fear and at risk. That support includes assessing the danger level to the victim and whether a restraining order against the offender is enough to protect her. If not, the center has been able to combine resources and gather information that could be used to persuade prosecutors to seek a dangerousness hearing against the offender. During a dangerousness hearing a judge can deem a defendant too dangerous to the victim or society at large to be allowed out on bail.
“And then help her use the system to her advantage to make sure that she has the support she needs. To make sure that the restraining order will be effective and if the defendant needs to be held so that she can feel safe and not have to go a shelter. And that’s a change in thinking,” Coakley said.
Coakley, who announced her run for governor last month, believes the state has done a good job with domestic violence but said the state may be a victim of its own success, saying public awareness may have dropped off in recent years.
“Only because we’ve been relatively successful,” Coakley said.
Last week, the Senate unanimously passed a bill aimed at protecting the employment rights of domestic violence victims and increasing penalties for restraining order violations. At the same time, the bill makes strangulation a felony. The bill also eliminates a provision that allows courts to dismiss charges if both parties agree in a written statement to drop charges. It is hoped the bill will empower victims and dissuade offenders.
“The on-the-ground reality that victims have to deal with that might jeopardize their employment, there’ll now be protections so they can take a leave of absence from work and that can be enforced by the attorney general,” state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, said during yesterday’s visit.
With the bill heading to the House, O’Connor Ives said the fact that it passed in the Senate unanimously was telling.
“This bill is an important step forward to eliminate outdated laws that thwart prosecution of abusers, increases penalties for offenders and offers new workplace protections for those addressing medical, housing or judicial matters caused by domestic violence,” O’Connor Ives said in later statement.
Other attendees included Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, state Rep. Michael Costello, D-Newburyport, Amesbury police Chief Kevin Ouellet, Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer and Merrimac police Chief Eric Shears.
While Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center’s Suzanne Dubus called yesterday’s visit by Coakley and others a dream come true, she acknowledged the challenges ahead in terms of changing existing laws on Beacon Hill.
“Change does take time, but what feels wonderful is that momentum is building. Everyone is focused,” Dubus said.