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31 Days, 31 Ways: Protective Orders May Cover More Texans

DAY 9 of our month-long series on the effects of new state laws and budget cuts: Lawmakers expanded protective orders to include pets and victims of teen dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.

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31 Days 31 Ways

Throughout the month of August, The Texas Tribune will feature 31 ways Texans' lives will change come Sept. 1, the date most bills passed by the Legislature — including the dramatically reduced budget — take effect. Check out our story calendar here

Day 9: Lawmakers passed several bills that will expand protective orders to include pets and victims of teen dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.

In her seven years as executive director at Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in Houston, Jackie Pontello has witnessed some truly disturbing scenarios: battered girlfriends, spouses treated as slaves, children victimized and sexually assaulted by their own parents. They are the kind of stories that help us understand why in Harris County alone there is a staggering number of domestic violence victims (nearly 225,000, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission). In 2009, the first year in which that county dedicated a court to protective orders, AVDA reports 3,000 were issued. Pontello says the 2011 Legislature may have made some budget cuts, but it also made sweeping changes to the state's criminal statutes to protect some of the state's most vulnerable people.

In the video below, Pontello describes how some of the new protective order laws will apply to her agency's clients. Frankly, we were shocked by the stories her staff has encountered in their efforts to provide legal aid to battered women and abused children.

Pontello says a recent study indicates 5 million Texans have reported being the victim of domestic abuse at some point during their lifetimes. Perhaps surprising, she says, is that 27 percent of victims are men.

Here's a rundown of the bills lawmakers passed related to domestic abuse:

Senate Bill 279 makes pets and other companion animals eligible to be included in protective orders.

Senate Bill 116 addresses dating violence. It makes protective orders available to the new boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse of the victim.

House Bill 649 relates to the issuance and duration of protective orders for victims of sexual assault. Previously, victims had to prove there was a threat of an additional attack. Fear of an attack wasn't sufficient.

Senate Bill 250 extends protective orders to someone who is being stalked but has not been sexually assaulted or a victim of domestic abuse.

House Bill 905 allows hearsay statements of a child to be submitted to the court. Another person, such as a teacher, could report the child's observations, including whether he or she saw a parent being beaten.

Senate Bill 789 establishes “permanent” protective orders in serious cases. The victim could get a lifetime protective order without having to face his or her abuser in court. Previously, the longest duration was two years.

Though AVDA supports the new protective order rules, Pontello says she is concerned about the state's decision to cut funding for battery intervention and prevention programs statewide by 50 percent. She said she and her staff will not know until after Sept. 1 how that reduction will affect their organization's own nationally recognized Battering Intervention and Prevention Program, which provides specialized counseling so that batterers can learn to "recognize, accept responsibility for and end their abusive behavior." They are prepared to ask those clients to pay higher fees, but Pontello says that "could lead to a higher dropout rate, particularly among parolees who are having a difficult time finding employment in this economy. A higher dropout typically translates into a return to prison." 

Web resources for victims seeking a protective order:

Texas attorney general's web site

Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, a nonprofit that offers free legal aid to victims and specialized counseling for abusers to recognize and end their behavior.

Texas Council on Family Violence

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story should have said there are 225,000 domestic violence victims in Harris County. In 2009, the same county issued 3,000 protective orders.

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Criminal justice State government 82nd Legislative Session State agencies Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Texas Legislature