Kentucky is the last state in the country to not allow dating partners to seek civil protective orders, but according to domestic violence advocates and party leadership in Frankfort, this is likely to change in the current General Assembly session.

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers (Photo courtesy LRC Public Information)
Republican Senate President Robert Stivers | Photo courtesy LRC Public Information

Despite the legislation being repeatedly blocked in the state Senate in recent years, Republican Senate President Robert Stivers — a critic of the bill in the past — has indicated he is confident a dating violence bill will pass in the current session.

A poll released by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky today also shows that passing such protections for dating partners is extremely popular, as 80 percent of Kentuckians would favor such a bill, with 61 percent strongly in favor. More than three-fourths of men and Republicans support it as well.

Sherry Currens, executive director of the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence, is encouraged that Senate Republican leadership has indicated they are likely to support such a bill and tells Insider Louisville she’s pleasantly surprised that the poll results were so overwhelming.

“Yes, it is surprising, but it shouldn’t be,” says Currens. “We clearly know that domestic violence crosses all boundaries, so there’s not a demographic for somebody who’s going to be a victim of domestic violence, or a perpetrator. It should be an issue that we’re all concerned about … But it has been surprising to me how the Senate has refused to even really consider it for the last three years.”

While Kentucky was a national leader in providing new domestic violence protections in the 1980s and early 1990s, it remains the only state in the country that does not allow civil emergency protective orders for dating partners who have never been married, lived together or shared a child. The state House passed a bill extending those protections for the first time in 2013, the same year Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield passed the bill out of his Senate Judiaciary committee by a 7-1 vote. However, the bill did not have enough support among the Senate Republican caucus to make it to the floor for a vote.

Asked about the bill last January, Stivers indicated his strong opposition, saying such civil protections were not necessary and that dating violence victims could go through the criminal court system.

“If somebody does something to my daughter in a dating situation or any kind of situation — assault or harassing communications — I know there is protections out there, and that is a warrant of arrest,” said Stivers. “And I plan to see those individuals arrested and the sanctions of the law applied to them. So is there a need for them to go get an EPO or a DVO? No there’s not. They can go down to the local county attorney.”

Stivers did not respond to an inquiry from Insider Louisville asking why he now thinks the Senate would support such a bill — and if and why he’s changed his mind — but advocates such as Currens hope they’ve finally sifted through the misinformation and realize that civil protections provide the immediate assistance needed for victims, whereas the criminal court process can take weeks.

“I think maybe, despite all of that (past) rhetoric, they finally understand why we need both processes,” says Currens. “That they are different and they are complimentary and they provide different types of protection … So I’m hoping that maybe they finally have calmed down about the hard fight advocates were making and are really thinking through the issue.”

State Rep. John Tilley

Democratic state Rep. John Tilley — a past lead sponsor of the bill and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee — tells IL he expects this year’s bill to be filed within the first week of the General Assembly coming back into session in February. He says most of the current discussions on the bill’s language are of a technical nature, as the need for civil emergency protections has finally been realized by past critics.

“We’re finally to a place where everybody realizes the importance of the issue,” says Tilley. “We can’t ignore the most vulnerable population to dating violence or domestic violence, and those are young women aged 16 up to 30, and the population of women over 60 who have lost a spouse and begin dating again. Just because someone’s not living together, married or doesn’t share a child in common with their abuser, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve this protection. And sadly, this arbitrary distinction has left a lot of girls and women out in the cold and subject to greater violence, which is unacceptable.”

While some assume Senate Republican leadership has changed their mind on the need for the legislation due to being fully educated on the issue, more cynical observers have wondered whether political motives pushed their hand. Westerfield, a strong advocate for the bill in recent years, is running for attorney general this year, and the successful passage of this bill would give him a major accomplishment on which to run. The passage or failure of such legislation could also play a role in other statewide elections this year, as both parties vie for the support of female voters.

In another political angle, Andy Beshear — Gov. Steve Beshear’s son — is running for the same office against Westerfield. Both the governor and first lady Jane Beshear have indicated the passage of such legislation is one of their top priorities for the current session.

While petty politics often derail even the most popular bills in Frankfort, Tilley is confident the technical details of the legislation will be worked out and Kentucky can finally join the rest of the country in providing such dating violence protections after a decade of trying.

“I am growing impatient,” says Tilley. “We continue to pick and tweak at this, but ultimately we’re at the back of the bus here. We don’t have that luxury anymore. I think we’ve got a Porsche here, and hopefully we’re not holding out for a Lamborghini … If it’s implemented and we see the need to make changes, we can always go back and do that, but we need these protections in place now.”

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]