By Beth Lawrence
Wesley Myers, director of Center for Domestic Peace, is cautiously hopeful an appellate court ruling will now keep all victims of domestic violence safe.
In December the N.C. Court of Appeals heard the case of a Wake County woman who was denied a Domestic Violence Protective Order in 2018 based on her sexual orientation and habitation status.
“Anybody in a non-heterosexual relationship was not eligible for a domestic violence protective order in North Carolina,” Myers said. “It’s been a topic of conversation in the legislature and in all the coalitions for close to a decade now. In the past five years, it’s really picked up in the amount that the state wants to address it because of marriage equality.”
The woman, referred to in court documents as M.E., sought protection from an estranged same-sex partner with whom she did not reside. Under North Carolina law, M.E. could not obtain the order because the state did not extend protections to same-sex couples not living in the same house. Protections only applied to opposite sex couples not living together and to couples who shared a home no matter their sexual orientation.
The idea had not moved forward despite same-sex marriage being recognized by the state since 2014, Myers said.
“The state has been progressing in terms of its definition of who is protected,” he said. “It’s very important because these couples need to have their due process before the law. A heterosexual couple has the ability to say, ‘Please stay away from me; I fear for my life.’ A same-sex couple really should have that same exact protection.”
Not having access to the same legal processes as heterosexual couples can lead to tragic consequences.
Domestic violence rates increase because victims don’t report abuse when they know or believe they will be denied legal protections. Without those protections, victims also die at the hands of their abusers.
Navigating the legal and emotional waters is trickier when dealing with same-sex couples, Myers said.
“Those folks need very similar resources, but of course one of the issues is, whether a referral for counseling or referral for housing or referral for anywhere in the community, we have to make sure where we’re referring them is safe for a same-sex couple to go to,” Myers said. “Fortunately in Jackson County I have never run into the issue of having to address any kind of discrimination.
“We have had a couple of cases of same-sex violence pop up. We’ve been very fortunate thus far in Jackson County. They lived together, so we were able to get the (DVP) order. We’ve never had a case where we were forced to turn them away.”
Myers knows of cases in nearby counties where LGBTQ persons were turned away under the same-sex loophole.
The irony is that state and federal funding for domestic violence programs requires providers to offer services regardless of sexual orientation, but on occasion those programs are forced to tell clients that despite prohibitions against it, the provider is forced to discriminate against them due to the law, Myers said.
Though victims have been murdered with protection orders in place, a person without a proper DVPO is much more likely to be re-victimized or killed.
“The DVPO is just a piece of paper, but it’s a piece of paper that gives you some power,” Myers said. “It removes that person from the home. It actually serves as a form of emergency eviction. So that offender has to leave the home which is where most of the deadly violence is going to occur. When we’re not able to protect that person in their home, we really run into some serious issues increasing the amount of inter-personal violence.”
Protective orders don’t stop at evicting an abuser from the home. They can provide emergency housing, arrange for custody of children and pets, force the abuser to cover the cost of temporary housing for victims, enforce temporary child support, force offenders to receive intervention counseling, demand property be returned, or force an abuser to stay away from a victim and their children.
“The simple fact of the matter is, just because the person doesn’t have the same address as the other person, doesn’t mean they don’t have access to their victim’s address,” Myers said. “They may have a key which gives them grey legal access. We use those protective orders to (spell out) where they can and where they cannot be.”
Before the December ruling, LGBTQ victims not cohabitating were not entitled to those protections.
Myers is concerned about rumblings the ruling will be appealed to the state supreme court. Additionally, the Administrative Office of the Courts had yet to change language on the forms one month after the ruling.
Currently the GS 50B complaint form specifically asks whether the person is part of an LGBTQ couple residing in the same home.
Myers hopes attaching an addendum drafted by attorneys explaining the situation will suffice should the state drag its feet updating the form, but the prospect would be expensive.
“We haven’t tried it, and as far as I know, no domestic violence provider has tried it yet,” he said. “I will be quite fascinated to see when we do the first ones how that goes.”