Recent incidents in Maryland have reminded us just how critical it is to help domestic violence survivors get to safety.
Last week, a Prince George’s County police officer was shot and killed as he stood guard while a domestic violence survivor attempted to flee. The survivor had filed for a protection order just days earlier and was in the process of having the locks changed at her home when her abuser appeared, threatened her, and shot the officer. The abuser had a history of domestic violence; his ex-wife had filed for protection orders against him several times in the past.
Just last month in Charles County, a man shot and killed his wife and then himself. The homicide occurred less than 24 hours after she obtained a protection order against him. The couple’s three children were hiding in the basement, and called the police when they heard gunshots.
These incidents weigh heavily on Legal Aid attorneys. In the past year alone, we have represented many women who were held at gunpoint by current or former significant others, sometimes in their own homes, sometimes for several hours, and sometimes in front of their children. We helped a client who sat with her one-year-old daughter on her lap as her child’s father aimed his work-issued gun at her. She begged him not to shoot. And she, like many of these women, sought protection from the court in hopes that gun violence would not escalate.
It is imperative that we keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers. We shared in a previous blog post that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of limiting access to guns for people with domestic violence convictions. As the national debate on gun control swells in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, at least this much is well-settled. Unfortunately, the system is not perfect. Guns sometimes do end up in the hands of abusers and domestic violence is inextricably linked to mass shootings. To better protect survivors, lawmakers must close loopholes that still allow abusers to obtain firearms.
Safety planning is vital for survivors filing for a Civil Protection Order, especially when there is a threat of gun violence. This means thinking about how to serve court documents and retrieve belongings, and, most importantly, where to live. Both of the District’s Domestic Violence Intake Centers – located at Superior Court and United Medical Center – are staffed by attorneys from Legal Aid, as well as other organizations like Survivors and Advocates for Empowerment (SAFE), who are ready to help survivors come up with a safety plan and find safe housing. Though the limited availability of safe and transitional housing can impact our clients’ ability to get to safety, the resources that are available can mean the difference between life and death for a domestic violence survivor.