June 5, 2012

Over the course of the last year investigating abuse cases in the state of Maine, a recurring disturbing theme began to emerge. While the state needs strong laws to protect innocent victims from abuse there are growing numbers of people who are misusing the system to gain better settlements, when they break up with their significant other.

“I came home one day and found the locks were changed,” said a public person who chooses to remain anonymous. “Then an officer tapped me on my shoulder and served me with the a temporary protection of abuse order. I was completely shocked.”

To avoid his divorce being tried in a public hearing and to be able to keep his public job, he signed a confidential agreement with his spouse before the week was through, back in 2008. Her lawyer withdrew the application for the order to be extended with the court, thereby canceling the hearing.

“She ended up with the house and cleared out our bank accounts,” he said. “What gets me to this day, is she said I hit her. I still can’t believe she went that far; I’d never to that. When we were first married, she said I was different from other men; I ‘was gentle.’ I got taken to the cleaners because she abused the system and lied.”

He’s not alone.

“A lot of women have legitimate cases, and that’s why the temporary protection from abuse orders (TPAs) are so important. I’m glad these measures are in place,” said Ann Greene, a caseworker. “However, I have to say a lot of my clients lie, in spite, in anger, to hurt their former lover, or just because they feel like it. There’s no doubt the system is misused by them.”

While Maine law helps women in low-income brackets who can’t afford legal counsel, these same laws also assist women who can afford legal counsel to abuse the system.

Typically what happens is a woman who is planning a divorce or separation from her lover gets an attorney. If her counsel asks her if she has ever been abused, harassed or thinks that she was in danger from her husband or lover, then she potentially has a case for a TPA. Her attorney then informs her that there are conditions that must be met before the court grants a TPA, and they proceed to work together to make sure that criteria is met. The objective: a better monetary settlement for the woman who claims abuse.

The man who receives the TPA lives in fear, wondering what to do. He wants to show the world he is innocent, but if the TPA goes to a public hearing he risks losing his job.

Because a hearing would embarrass his company, and he wants to keep his job, he ends up signing a confidential agreement so the charges never become public.

“Temporary protection orders are not difficult to obtain — a judge reviews a request and rules on whether to grant the order, without input from the person it would apply to. Permanent protection order requests are more thoroughly scrutinized — a hearing is held, and a judge hears from both parties, along with weighing additional evidence,” reported Susan Cover in a Portland Press Herald article on May 6, 2012.

“Judges hand TPAs out like candy,” said Greene. “They figure it’s better to be safe than sorry. It also gives both people time to come to an agreement instead of arguing out their differences in a court of law. At the same time a TPA gives a settlement advantage to the person who files.”

Susan Cover wrote, “In 2011, 6,209 requests for TPAs were filed statewide. Of those, 4,949 TPAs were granted, leading to 2,155 permanent orders.”

Many of those TPAs that never became permanent orders were settled with confidential agreements between the two parties.

“Then there are cases where a woman with a mental disability claims abuse but nobody is aware of her disability,” said Greene. “So an innocent man ends up looking like an abuser. I’ve known DHHS cases like that. They are extremely sad because the women never gets the health-care she needs, and she ends up hurting the only person that cared for her.”

This happened in the Handler Case, which was written about extensively in Maine Insights. The case is in now in federal court.

Our society rightfully jumps to the defense of women if abuse is alleged. After all, in the majority of abuse cases, the victims are female. Over 50 percent of homicides in Maine are due to domestic violence, which the TPA helps to stem.

However there are men, currently unrepresented, who are being abused by women misusing the TPA system. These cases also clog up the court system and misuse law enforcement, taking away resources that are there to protect women who really need TPAs.

While the current system protects many women in dire need, it actually hurts this silent minority of men targeted by former lovers. These men continue to be unrepresented, unable to tell their stories publicly for fear of losing their jobs, their children, and status in society.