Thursday, April 3, 2008

Is this the year the Family Court access bill becomes law?

After passing the Assembly two weeks ago, a bill opening Family Court to domestic partners and other unmarried people was approved this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee. With movement in both chambers of the Legislature, advocates of this long-stalled measure are beginning to believe this may finally be the year this bill becomes law.

So how does this affect the LGBT community?

Well, believe it or not, New York is the only state in the country – yes the only state -- that limits the umbrella of protections it provides to victims of domestic violence to people who are married, have been married, or who legally share a child. This means states like Mississippi and Louisiana are more progressive than New York in how they treat unmarried partners in situations when domestic violence occurs.

This bill expands New York’s restrictive definition of “who is family” to include domestic partners and people in dating relationships – both same-sex and opposite-sex -- so that they, like married couples, will have access to Family Court and the protections it provides. The practical effect of this bill is significant.

For a married couple in an abusive relationship, the person being abused can obtain an order of protection from family court without initiating criminal procedures, which most abused parties do not want to do for a variety of reasons. Family court also has the ability to issue orders of protection that exclude the abuser from the common residence and can mobilize other types of social services aimed at addressing the situation.

Currently in New York for a same-sex couple, or any unmarried couple who does not share a child, the individual being abused has no recourse but criminal court and must find a district attorney willing to initiate criminal proceedings before any order of protection can be issued. Criminal court also has no ability to issue an order of protection that keeps the abuser out of the common residence nor can it mobilize any social services that may be helpful.

In short, family court is structured to deal with problems that are unique to two people who share an intimate relationship while criminal court is not.

There was real hope in 2001 and 2002 that this issue would be dealt with once and for all as part of larger bills dealing with domestic violence -- but it never happened. Since then the Assembly has continued to pass its bill sponsored by Assemblymember Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn) while things have been much quieter over on the Senate side. This year, though, a Republican in the Senate became the bill’s prime sponsor -- Senator George Winner (R-Elmira). Those who follow politics are speculating this means there is a new willingness on the part of the State Senate to get this done.

We certainly hope so.

Now that the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved the bill, the only thing left is for the Senate to vote on it. We sent out an action alert this week asking everyone to call their State Senator to urge them to get the bill to the floor for a vote.

It’s way overdue for New York to catch up with the other forty-nine states when it comes to domestic violence and who is protected.

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