Our Views: New Wisconsin laws offer hope for victims of domestic violence

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

It was good to see Gov. Scott Walker sign three bills last week that strengthen domestic-violence laws. It also was heartening that the Legislature set aside partisanship and approved all three bills on voice votes.

Domestic violence remains a scourge statewide. It has hit Janesville far too often in recent decades, leaving homicide victims and shattered families. Just this month, Rock County Judge James Daley sentenced Jeffrey J. Starkman, 35, of Janesville to 60 years in prison for last April's ax attack that severely wounded the mother of his two children and her male friend. Starkman and the woman had separated, and he believed she and her friend were in a romantic relationship.

Advocacy groups say that the period after someone leaves a relationship poses the most risk for domestic violence. One of the three new laws was proposed after Radcliffe Haughton fatally shot his estranged wife in 2012 while she was working at a Brookfield spa. He also killed two other workers and wounded four more women before committing suicide.

Senate Bill 160 requires district attorneys to report to the state Department of Justice whenever an officer responds to a call but makes no arrest. Brown Deer police drew criticism because they decided not to arrest Haughton after reports of abuse in 2011 and in the weeks before the shootings. The bill ensures that law officers refer victims to services after they respond to incidents.

“We know that seeking services from a domestic violence advocate can be one of the most significant steps a victim can take to improve his or her safety,” Patti Seger, executive director of End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, said in a news release heralding all three new laws. “This bill will help break down the isolation and fear that allow abuse to thrive.”

The Stopping Abuse Fatalities through Enforcement, or SAFE Act, requires courts to verify that violent offenders surrender firearms in accordance with longstanding state law. Advocates sought the legislation after a 2008 study found most counties do not actively enforce the surrender requirement.

“The SAFE Act will save lives,” Seger said. “We know a gun makes an abuser more dangerous and more lethal. Moving forward, Wisconsin will be actively disarming known batterers and child abusers.”

Assembly Bill 176 changes restraining order statutes. Among provisions, it adds stalking to the definition of domestic abuse and gives child victims more privacy. Stalking, Seger says, is one of the greatest indicators of high risk, and Starkman apparently used it. His former girlfriend testified she sensed he was watching her before the attack.

“Every year in Wisconsin, thousands of people, mostly women, seek help from law enforcement and the legal system because they believe someone they have a relationship with may harm them,” Walker said in a news release. “These laws empower the system that serves them, so we can do better in protecting the victims, and potential victims, of domestic abuse and connect them with crucial services, when they need our help the most.”

Too often, law officers and victim advocates lack the power to prevent violence. These measures provide more tools for halting abusers bent on acting out. Add the fact that the state budgeted more money to help shelters around Wisconsin, and state government is offering hope for some of our most vulnerable residents.

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