I don’t know if you felt it, but on Tuesday afternoon, February 9th, Massachusetts became a little safer for survivors of sexual violence and stalking. On that day, Governor Patrick signed into law S. 2212, “An Act Relative to Harassment Prevention Orders,” which became M.G.L. Chapter 258E.
Up until last week, survivors of sexual violence, stalking, and harassment were able to petition for a criminally enforceable protection order only if the perpetrator of the abuse was a family member, roommate, current or former spouse, or a person with whom the victim has or had a “substantial dating relationship.” As a result, many victims were left without any protection under the old restraining order frameworks.
The fight to pass this restraining order bill in Massachusetts went on for nearly a decade. During that time, the Commonwealth lagged behind 38 other states with stalking/harassment civil protection orders and 17 states with sexual assault civil protection orders.
The remarkable thing about that loophole was that, while it addressed many of the needs of domestic violence survivors, it fundamentally ignored the reality of many sexual violence and stalking survivors. That is, it was based on the premise that strangers perpetrate most acts of sexual violence and stalking. While the old framework offered protection to those who might have been victimized by a family member or a current or former partner, the underlying assumption was that those who were victimized by someone who was a stranger would not require a protection order, since they had never seen them before and likely wouldn’t again.
And that assumption left vulnerable not only those who were victimized by strangers, but also by the innumerable survivors assaulted and harassed or stalked by friends, acquaintances, classmates, teammates, coworkers, neighbors…the constellation of people with whom we live our daily lives.
There were many, many individuals who labored on various forms of this bill over the last decade, in the legislature, in law enforcement and the DAs offices, and in victim advocacy. Not surprisingly, though, one of the most powerful things to hear was the testimony in committee hearings of survivors and loved ones of survivors who needed protection and needed safety, but were not able to access it.
Stephanie Decandia, BARCC’s Manager of System Advocacy and Policy Development, made an important point in her remarks at the bill signing last week: “survivors are given the opportunity to fully engage with their lives again.” Too often, as a culture, we put the burden on survivors of making adjustments to their lives—-moving, leaving their school or jobs, separating from their family or their social groups. In that way, we allow the actions of perpetrators to have aftershocks far beyond the original threats or assaults, and that is unacceptable.
Stephanie rightly pointed out that “this legislation sends a message to all sexual assault and stalking survivors that they are heard, they are entitled to live their life without fear, and they do deserve our protection.” At the same time, it makes a broader point that harassment, threats, and further violence will not be tolerated, and that the larger community is taking responsibility for the safety of its members when they’re vulnerable.