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Domestic violence will not become one of the grounds for getting a divorce in Mississippi after a House committee chairman declined to take up the proposal.
Tuesday morning, on a deadline for bills to pass out of committee or die, the House Judiciary B Committee took up several routine bills before Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, announced that he would not take up Senate Bill 2703, which would have made domestic violence the 13th ground for divorce in Mississippi.
Earlier in the year, two similar House bills died in Gipson’s committee. Gipson, an attorney and Baptist pastor, said he has some fundamental concerns about the bill. Similar measures have also failed in previous years.
“At a time I think we need to be adopting policies that promote marriage and people sticking together, I have some serious concerns about opening the floodgates any more than they already are,” Gipson said. “I think the floodgates are already open and this just tears the dam down.”
Gipson said that inhuman treatment is already a grounds for divorce and that attorneys may need to receive more education about that fact before the Legislature passes additional legislation.
Gipson also declined to consider a bill that would make bona fide separation a grounds for divorce, saying that it would allow a person to leave and then have grounds for divorce against “the innocent person.”
“We need to have policies that strengthen marriage. If a person is abusive, they need to have a change in behavior and change of heart,” Gipson said.
Sandy Middleton, executive director of the Center for Violence Prevention in Pearl, agrees that abusers need more education, but adds that intervention programs are not offered in all counties and often lack funding, putting the burden on small nonprofits to do such training.
She adds that inhumane treatment is difficult to prove because the law requires someone to corroborate, which she says is often the children who live in the abusive households. In some cases, when abuse victims have filed for divorce and have criminal charges against their abuser, judges dismiss the criminal charges believing the victim wants to use the criminal charges as leverage in the divorce.
I would encourage our leading legislators to sit down with victims who are struggling not just with divorce but with living their lives. I think it would shed some light on the seriousness of this issue,” Middleton said.
Executive director of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence Wendy Mahoney agreed that keeping families together is important, “However, there are extenuating circumstances that do exist in many situations.”
Mahoney said her organization worked with senators to draft the bill. Although the current law does include inhumane treatment, she added it is very difficult to provide adequate evidence or proof. By the time someone tries to get a divorce, it is likely not an isolated situation or the first time an incident occurred, she said.
“Realistically, to be called domestic violence it is a pattern,” Mahoney said. “If that already exists in our current definition by law, then why does a person have to go above and beyond to prove that?”
Moving forward, she thinks the Legislature and advocates need to focus on educating the public about domestic abuse and examine “how we can best work to support those individuals who are feeling helpless and hopeless when they are involved in those relationships.”
Editor’s note: Tiffany Graves serves on the Board of Directors of the Center for Violence Prevention. Graves also serves on the Board of Directors of Mississippi Today.