Why doesn’t the Kentucky Senate care about dating violence?

Kentucky House Bill 98 would have introduced a series of educational and policy requirements regarding teen dating violence for school districts and high school educational staff. It failed in the Senate – and this was even after a committee amendment gutted both the requirement that every school board adopt a policy related to teen dating violence and the statewide data collection system to compile reports of teen dating violence.

But what’s even worse is that Kentucky House Bill 9, a bill which would allow victims of dating abuse to seek civil protection from their abusers, didn’t even get to the point where it could be voted on in the anti-dating-protections Kentucky Senate. Kentucky currently provides protections to people who aren’t married to their abusers only if they lived with them or had a child with them, but this excludes a wide swath of dating relationships from consideration in a civil case. After passing the House and clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee for the first time, this bill couldn’t even garner enough support to come to a vote in the Senate; it was adjourned ‘sine die’ (for an indefinite period), which is essentially equivalent to letting a bill die.

So the Kentucky State Senate doesn’t want to educate teenagers about healthy dating practices – and when those teenagers and young adults end up in actual abusive relationships, the Senate certainly doesn’t want to help them get the protection they need. The bizarre and myopic refusal to support these kinds of protections puts actual lives in danger. And it’s not like this was the first time the bill was introduced in the House, and therefore the first time the Kentucky Senate got to consider it. The bill was approved by a House committee five times in the past five years, giving legislators plenty of time to educate themselves on this legislation and its implications.

So far, I’ve just been ranting, and that’s because I honestly don’t understand any kind of reasonable argument as to why this bill shouldn’t clear any competent legislative body. But the Kentucky Senate clearly thinks there’s some kind of possible reason – so let’s consider a few of them.

“Dating violence isn’t a big deal.”

No. This just isn’t true. According to The National Conference of State Legislatures, “one in 10 adolescents reports being a victim of physical dating violence.” About a quarter of adolescents report any form of abuse – verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual – each year. And ‘dating’ isn’t something only teen heathens do. About 72% of eighth and ninth graders report ‘dating’ in some form; the numbers only go up as people get older. A national poll found that 43% of college women have experienced violent and abusive dating behaviors, and 15% of all college students have been the victim of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or threats of physical violence. Older dating couples who are not cohabitating also experience abuse to a surprising degree.

And these are the nationwide statistics – Kentucky is even worse. Kentucky high schoolers report being hit, slapped, or otherwise physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend at some point in the previous year at a rate of upwards of 14.1%. It’s one of only five states in the nation to have such a high rate of high school dating violence, joining Wyoming, Arkansas, Maryland, and Georgia.

“Dating abuse isn’t dangerous enough to justify protection.”

Tell that to the family of Darnisha Peoples, a seventeen-year-old high school junior whose ex-boyfriend allegedly stabbed her to death last September in front of his two younger siblings. She’s just one of too many teenagers who are killed by current or former partners before they even leave high school – certainly before many of them consider living with their partners or having children with them. As tragic as it may be, teenagers are not exempt from abusing, seriously harming, or even murdering their partners.

It might be that long, long ago (maybe 1850?) dating relationships were never close enough to develop the kind of intimacy that would allow an abuser to generate and sustain a cycle of abuse. Maybe the reason why couples that cohabitated at some point are eligible for civil protections while couples that live separately are not is because legislators felt that cohabitating dating relationships were ‘serious’ and therefore potentially dangerous, while ones in which the parties lived separately were not.

Given recent research into the prevalence of high school dating violence, though, it should be clear that abuse can rear its ugly head anywhere. Moreover, there may be any number of reasons why someone might pursue a ‘serious’ relationship and still choose to live separately from their partner – kids from another marriage or relationship, convenience relative to their job, financial issues. So even if legislators wanted to adopt the ‘serious relationship’ criterion for deciding when to grant protective orders (ignoring the fact that courts can do this as well, in a more nuanced way), they still don’t have much justification.

Food for thought: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, even though overall intimate partner homicide rates are on the decline, the rate of homicides of dating partners is increasing. Dating violence is serious, and a civil protection policy shouldn’t just ignore it.

“These are just kids – they can’t make appropriate decisions.”

Fortunately, the judge is sitting on the bench for the exact purpose of making those appropriate decisions.

“This will put too large a financial strain on the family court system.”

First of all, there are just some points at which we simply shouldn’t care about financial strains or burdens, and should accept them as part of the cost of keeping people safe, healthy, and alive. We accept the extra cost of paying for public schooling, the extra cost of paying for prisons to lock criminals up, the extra cost of social security so our aging relatives don’t suffer. The – significantly smaller – extra costs potentially associated with expanding these civil protections can help save people who otherwise would have to live lives of insecurity, dread, or downright terror.

This kind of argument is a tough sell for some people, the kinds who are only concerned about cost savings. But even though arguments on the grounds of financial strain initially sound reasonable, these claims aren’t true. University of Louisville researcher TK Logan has done a considerable amount of research on the cost increases or savings associated with civil protective orders, and has found that while there are typically high costs associated with intimate partner violence before and after civil protection is implemented, issuing domestic violence orders typically results in cost savings. The actual cost of the court time and resources is less than the large decrease in quality-of-life costs, health service costs, police and justice system costs, and costs from property loss. It’s certainly less than the cost of a criminal prosecution for a misdemeanor or felony, which is the route to which victims of dating violence must turn when they can’t obtain personal protection via the civil system. Intimate partner violence is a huge burden on our criminal justice and healthcare systems, as well as the overall safety and productivity of society. Steps to reduce it are worth some short-term cost.

Kentucky Stands Alone

Maybe common sense, reason, or compassion won’t work. Sometimes people respond better to shaming and humiliation. They should consider this: Kentucky is literally the only state in the union without any kind of civil protection for victims of dating violence. Seriously. Forty-three states explicitly extend their protective orders to members of a current or former ‘dating relationship’ or ‘intimate relationship,’ while the other six (Georgia, Maryland, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Virginia) allow victims to file for civil protection under other sorts of protective orders. Please share the map below to let others know exactly how behind Kentucky is when it comes to these protections.