Stuck in the mud is a term often used in Mississippi but the description aptly applies to our divorce laws. The Clarion-Ledger's Geoff Pender reported yesterday how Mississippi law favors the wife-beaters while keeping their victims enslaved. Some state senators are trying to change the law for the better yet face opposition from all corners.
The story begins by telling the tale of a woman who repeatedly tried to get divorce but her husband refused to grant her one. She was stuck for years in this unfortunate predicament until she finally moved in desperation to another state with more sensible laws. Mr. Pender paints a picture that is all too often the reality in Mississippi:
Mary Smith — whose real name is not being used to protect her safety — filed for divorce last summer after she and her three children fled her husband and their home. They spent a week in a metro area shelter for abused women. It had taken Smith a while to work up the courage to leave her marriage of only a few years, and she had a moment of panic when her husband discovered her plan.
Smith fears her husband. While she says he has only physically grabbed or shoved her, she fears that could change at any time.
"He smashes things, throws over tables, threatens, breaks stuff, curses at me, yells," Smith said. "I had to walk on eggshells, ask permission to leave the house, beg him not to yell and do that in front of the children … My hands are shaking right now, even thinking about him, talking to you … You just wonder, 'Is this going to be the time that raised fist comes down on you?' …
"It was like living in a cult."
She returned home only after he agreed to move out, although he has since "broken in," she said. She said police have since escorted him as he retrieved things from the home.
Smith had been a homemaker before the separation, and she said her husband drained their bank accounts when she fled to the shelter. She's worked several part-time jobs while trying to find a full-time one....
Smith said that until she started reading Mississippi's divorce laws, she didn't realize "I basically have to have his permission to get a divorce." She fears she's in for a long, expensive ordeal. In the meantime, she fears for her safety.
"I had thought, maybe I would have to wait a year or something for irreconcilable differences (to be proven)," Smith said. "He's been telling me he's never going to sign. Our laws need to change. Being held hostage in a bad and unsafe relationship — you wouldn't force anybody to stay in a job like that. Why have laws that hold people hostage in a bad and unsafe relationship?"
Smith noted — as have experts and advocates — that Mississippi's law doesn't specify domestic abuse as a grounds for divorce, and its provision for cruelty as a ground requires "clear and convincing" proof of "habitual cruelty."
"So, according to habitual, you have to be beaten at least two or three times to get out," Smith said.
Smith, as others have noted, said Mississippi's antiquated divorce laws appear to have been written by men, for men....
Sandy Middleton, director of the Center for Violence Prevention, helped arrange The Clarion-Ledger's interview with "Mary Smith." Middleton said Smith's case is not peculiar. It's run-of-the-mill.
"Victims of domestic violence suffer from our current divorce system," Middleton said. "Frequently when women flee their abusive partners, they are unemployed and don't have any access to justice. Domestic violence offenders will use the court to continue to abuse. Our divorce law is the hammer they use to do it … It's very frequent that we see abusers dragging their victims through the courts for years. It's about control, and a lot of times the only tool they have left to exert control is (the) court.
"In our state, our area, there is nowhere to go for pro bono divorce legal assistance … The volunteer lawyers don't want to touch divorce because it's always so long and drawn out."
Middleton said spouses filing for divorce in abusive situations often causes a Catch-22.
"Let's say a victim finally gets enough and calls (the) police and presses charges, simple assault," Middleton said. "If she files for divorce before the criminal charges come up, nine times out of 10, once a judge learns there's a divorce filing, they won't hear the criminal case or grant a protective order because in their minds it's all tied to the divorce. In their mind, they think it's bogus criminal charges to help get a divorce. We see it all the time."
Middleton said victims of abuse often "give up" when they learn how difficult and expensive a divorce will be, and they stay in the abusive home and marriage....
One expert on Mississippi's divorce laws made a few pointed observations:
"Proving grounds (for divorce) requires corroboration through witnesses or documentation, and requires understanding of the elements of the ground and the rules of evidence. In other states, obtaining a divorce is a more simple process and more easily navigated without an attorney," Bell said.
Mississippi courts, Bell said, also still allow "archaic" common-law defenses when considering proof of grounds for divorce.
"Under Mississippi law, a spouse who condones, or forgives marital fault can't get a divorce unless the conduct happens again," Bell said. "In the context of domestic violence, a survivor who leaves home — perhaps to go to a shelter — then returns home has 'condoned' the violence. She has lost her ground for divorce until the violence happens again. This puts a survivor in the untenable position of needing to remain in the marriage — and in danger — to secure grounds for divorce. The previous abuse is not enough. She has to wait for it to happen again."
Bell has recommended Mississippi "adopt a middle ground between short-term, no-fault divorce and the current fault-based system." She said this could be done by creating a new ground based on long-term separation.
"This would at least provide an eventual route to divorce for one whose spouse will not agree," Bell said.
However, the legislature might modify Mississippi's divorce laws this year.
Sens. Sally Doty, Brice Wiggins, Sean Tindell — all attorneys — and others are pushing two bills, both of which have passed the full Senate and are pending in the House. Similar measures have died in the past, including last year.
One, authored by Doty, R-Brookhaven, would add "including domestic abuse" to the "cruel and inhuman treatment" grounds for divorce. A bill she authored last year to add "domestic violence" as a grounds died on the last day of the session when it got tangled up in debate over adding lengthy separation as grounds, along with other politics.
"I want to make clear that domestic violence is unacceptable, and we changed it to say domestic abuse to cover a few more things, such as social isolation and financial exploitation," Doty said. "By domestic abuse, it's not necessarily a conviction for violence, but you can put on your evidence of abuse. It opens it up a little bit."
Tindell, R-Gulfport, has authored a bill that would create "bona fide separation" of two or more years as a grounds for divorce — a step toward a true no-fault provision.
Doty said problems caused by Mississippi's divorce laws and the politics of trying to change them "is a real hair ball."...
Therein lies the problem. Politics. Some of the more conservative legislators told the newspaper they were against changing divorce laws at all. One even went so far as to say that he opposed even including domestic violence as a ground for divorce. One wonders why this is even a "conservative" issue. What exactly does stopping victims from escaping abusive marriages have to do with Adam Smith, limited government, or freedom from government intrusion?
Simply put, their opposition helps the abusers. Some abusers are actually smart enough not to cause bruises or broken bones. They will instead make life a living hell for the victim. The additional ground for separation or domestic violence would have provided a way for a victim of abuse to leave an abusive marriage when the other spouse will not agree to a divorce.
If the woman has enough and leaves, well, the abuser can charge her with desertion. If she comes back to the house because she fears for her children's safety, she effectively wipes out her case. Then there is the matter of proof. The abuser can throw things at her, yell at her every night, and commit other acts of abuse yet she has to be able to prove the abuse to a judge. Good luck. Family members often refuse to testify. Victims of domestic abuse and violence are usually in the inferior position. Abusers marry them often because they can control the spouse. The victim is usually dependent on the abuser. If the abuser is really good (sarcasm), he made sure she didn't possess the means, money, or job skills to take care of herself. They often refuse to agree to a divorce if the victim files charges - or use dropping the charges as a bargaining chip in the divorce. Then there is the matter of infidelity. The abuser at times commits adultery but the victim lacks the means to hire the private investigators to catch the adultery.
The victim often can't afford an attorney. Beaten and cowed, she is at the mercy of a court system that truly is pay to play when it comes to divorce and unfortunately for the victims, the abusers are all too often the only ones who can pay to play. They hold the cards yet some senators refuse to recognize that fact. The truth is, getting divorced in Mississippi sucks for those who suffer abuse and are poor. The legislature needs to change the laws to help victims escape deadly marriages instead of making excuses to help the abusers.