Addressing Domestic and Sexual Violence

The House Judiciary Committee has had a productive first half of the 2023 Biennium, passing out ten bills addressing a wide range of issues. It passed bills that would establish protections for providers and patients of reproductive or gender-affirming health care, modernize Vermont’s power of attorney law, and eliminate driver’s license suspensions as a consequence for failure to pay fines on moving violations. Throughout the session, the committee has also focused on addressing domestic and sexual violence.

Data from the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence shows that more than 40,000 Vermonters experience domestic or sexual violence every year. The House Judiciary Committee has worked on multiple bills this session to protect more Vermonters and better address the full spectrum of abuse.

Most survivors of domestic or sexual violence do not seek relief from their abuser either through a protective order or a report of abuse to law enforcement. In Vermont, only 12 to 20% of survivors access the criminal justice system and BIPOC survivors are even less likely to do so. National data suggests that only a quarter of sexual assault victims report the abuse to law enforcement or seek medical care.

Often individuals do not report domestic or sexual violence because they fear the typical criminal justice process. Also, many survivors wish to, or out of financial necessity must, continue to be in some form of relationship with the people who harm them – whether this is continuing an intimate partner relationship or navigating the challenges of coparenting. Going to court or to the police is not necessarily an option they are likely to pursue.

To address this reluctance and provide an avenue other than a court or the police to address such violence, stakeholders have explored the potential for restorative approaches. In 2018, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 146, which created an interdisciplinary Study Committee to examine restorative justice approaches to addressing domestic and sexual violence. The Committee’s report included consensus recommendations that the House Judiciary Committee followed in its work on H.41. 

The bill, recently passed by the House, would allow community justice centers (CJCs) to receive referrals of domestic and sexual violence cases under specific conditions. Opening the door to a restorative justice approach, which is victim-centered and focused on repairing harm, may lead more victims to seek relief.

While domestic violence is most often equated with physical violence, domestic abuse can take many forms. One such damaging form of intimate partner violence is litigation abuse. Litigation abuse is the misuse of court proceedings by abusers to control, harass, intimidate, coerce, and/or impoverish survivors. Abusers may make frequent court filings that the survivor of domestic violence then needs to answer, costing money, work time, and a sense of security. Abusive litigation is also a drain on the court’s very limited resources. 

To address litigation abuse, the House has passed H.45, which limits a convicted abuser’s ability to use the court system to continue harming a survivor of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault. The bill would establish a narrowly defined process to protect victims while still ensuring the due process rights of those using abusive tactics. It would allow a court to screen legal filings to protect both the wellbeing of the survivor and the resources of the court.

The House also passed H.148, a bill that would ban child marriage. Vermonters who marry younger than 18 years old (89% of whom are female) are more likely to be abused by their spouse and are at higher risk for a host of physical and mental health challenges. Because marriage is a contract, this bill aligns with Vermont’s stance that children cannot enter into a legally binding contract.

When the legislature returns from the town meeting break, the House Judiciary Committee will continue its consideration of H.27, a bill that would include coercive control as a form of abuse for which a victim may obtain a protective order. Abusers may use various coercive tactics to control their partners, isolate them from support, and deprive them of independence. This type of abuse often escalates until physical abuse occurs. H.27 would expand a victim’s access to protection by allowing judges to consider the full pattern of abusive behavior before it potentially turns lethal.