Maryland lawmaker pushes to expand definition of domestic abuse

When she was running for office, Maryland Del. Angela Angel (D-Prince George's County) thought it would be best to keep the dissolution of her violent marriage to herself. She wanted to avoid the uncomfortable questions it might raise, plus she felt that it would distract from all she'd accomplished as a seasoned attorney.

"That's not my whole story," she says. "We didn’t want that to be the narrative."

However, she's changed her tune since introducing HB 1396, a bill that would expand the definition of domestic abuse to include written and electronic harassment and malicious destruction of property. It would also require the State Board of Education to incorporate domestic violence education at all age levels.

Angel says that her husband didn't just physically harm her—he would take her cell phone and threaten to call important business contacts. She says it was embarrassing, intimidating, and abusive.

Similar legislation is already in place in many other states and proposals have been introduced here in Maryland. However, Angel's bill keeps getting shot down. She says one of the bill's biggest detractors also happens to be chair of the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee, Del. Joseph F. Vallario (D-Prince George’s County).

She says Vallario has said that women could use the bill to put their husbands out of the house for any reason at al—but that's not so. According to the legislation, there would have to be proof that the victim had asked the harasser to stop contacting him or her, and that the harasser had ignored this request.

Angel says that because Vallario says no, other members of the committee fall in line behind him. Not only that, but the fact that she refuses to back down means that other pieces of legislation she has proposed are getting ignored, too.

City Paper reached out to Vallario for comment but he did not respond.

Time is running out. The Maryland General Assembly session ends on April 11, so Angel is speaking out. She's urging citizens to put pressure on lawmakers to push the bill through.

"You're victimizing these people all over again. This is the one place they should be able to come, and you are sending them into the run-around again," she says.

One of the bill's most vocal advocates is political strategist Catalina Byrd.

Byrd has experienced domestic violence at the hands of her daughter's father. She says that victims and their children are forced to play a dangerous waiting game—they can't get a protective order against their abuser until that person has hurt them physically.

"Every time he broke a cell phone in anger, every time he broke a laptop or a computer trying to impede my work or intimidate me… there's no protections until he actually put his hands on me because of our child in common," she says.

Before leaving office, Attorney General Doug Gansler successfully pushed for legislation making it an additional charge if you committed an act of domestic violence in the presence of a child. But, Byrd says, that's not enough. "It's still the physical part. It's not the throwing cell phones across rooms that are buzzing past your kid's head. It's not the breaking TVs. None of those things are included because they’re not included in the definition."

Byrd says she confronted Vallario on a recent trip to Annapolis that she took with other domestic violence survivors to support the bill.

"Vallario… just tried to walk away from me mid-sentence once he found out what the bill was about," she says.

Byrd says that although she has worked in politics for over 10 years and talks politics on radio shows like WEAA's "First Edition" and on cable television show "NewsOne Now," she's never assumed the role of advocate before.

"If my telling my story and allowing them to put my face on the flier… are going to help and ultimately help save more women in the future," she says, then it's worth it. "I was blessed. I survived but all of us don't."

Since opening up about her own abuse, she says that so many friends, acquaintances, and even mentors have come to her to talk about their own experiences with domestic violence. Some of them are well into their 40's but still struggling to cope with the violence they witnessed in their families growing up, she says.

"It's been mind-blowing. The effects and impact of domestic violence are really all around us and we just don't know a lot of the times."

Byrd says there is still so much work to be done to protect domestic violence victims.

"A lot of times judges will just apologize to you for not being able to do more because their hands are tied by what the law says but ultimately there are women who are losing their lives."

She'd love to see something where people could volunteer their homes as safe spaces for domestic violence victims, so they wouldn't have to go back home to their abusers. She said it could be similar to how children in crisis situations are able to be placed in temporary foster care until the situation is sorted out through the courts.

"There's but so many people the House of Ruth can take, and so many people that My Sister's Place can take," she says, referring to domestic violence shelters.

As it stands now, victims have to put their address on protective order forms. That means that their abusers can see the forms and know where they live. She'd like that to change.

"I'd like to see in the way that we create shielding laws for nonviolent ex-offenders so that they can't be discriminated against jobs, a way to shield the location of the impacted person," she says.

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