Domestic violence coalition calls for legal changes during special session

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By , VTDigger.org

Auburn Watersong
Auburn Watersong, of the Vermont Network against Domestic and Sexual Violence. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

Vermont’s domestic violence coalition is calling on lawmakers to revise the state’s relief-from-abuse statute to require law enforcement to remove firearms from households where such an order is in force.

The call comes in the wake of the apparent murder of Anako Lumumba, a 33-year-old South Burlington nurse who was allegedly killed by her boyfriend Leroy Headley, 36, who has evaded police since an arrest warrant went out two weeks ago.

Attorney General TJ Donovan also said this week that Vermonters should start a discussion about the relief-from-abuse process and other improvements to how the state supports victims of domestic violence, with an eye to making concrete changes during next year’s legislative session.

The Vermont Network put out a statement on Thursday saying that now is the time to revise the state laws around emergency protection for domestic violence victims, with Gov. Phil Scott expected to call lawmakers back to Montpelier next week.

“Next week’s legislative special session presents an immediate opportunity for Vermont’s legislature to take critical steps to strengthen the protection order system, in hopes of preventing another tragic loss,” the network said in a statement.

Lumumba sought two relief-from-abuse orders against Headley, one in April last year and the other in December. Both of them were vacated when she failed to show up for a court hearing on the “final order,” when defendants can respond to the underlying claims in the complaint.

In both complaints, Lumumba told police that Headley had guns and was threatening to hurt or kill her. The temporary relief order in December included a discretionary request for Headley to surrender his firearms, but it was not enforced before the order was vacated after five days.

lumumba headley
Leroy Headley, left, with Anako Lumumba in a photograph posted to her Facebook page.

Auburn Watersong, policy director for the Vermont Network, said the group believes these protection orders should automatically and immediately require law enforcement to remove guns from abusive situations.

“The statute doesn’t require judges to do that — if it’s in state statute it will be taken more seriously throughout the system,” she said.

The period after a victim files a complaint with police is one of the most dangerous times, as that act can escalate already abusive situations, she said, adding that abusive partners may ramp up threats and prevent the victim from following through on obtaining a final order.

Watersong noted that there is already a federal statute that prevents individuals subject to a relief-from-abuse order from possessing or obtaining a gun, but that writing it into state statute would compel stronger enforcement.

She said that the Legislature showed in recent months that it understands the deadly combination of domestic violence and firearms, with the passage of H.422, a bill that allows law enforcement to remove firearms from the premises when responding to domestic violence cases.

And Watersong said there was no reason not to use the upcoming special session to move ahead on a change that the network talked about throughout that process.

However, it remains unclear whether any legislation beyond the budget and tax bills will be considered during the special session, which is tentatively scheduled to begin on May 23, said Dick Sears, D-Bennington and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sears, whose committee vetted and approved H.422, said he was not opposed to the idea, but would want the time to talk to the attorney general, advocates, and others in the law enforcement community if they were going to consider changing state statute.

The senior senator noted that opening things up for new laws during the special session, which the governor wants to last for only three days, would mean every committee would want the chance to take up priority bills — and could make for a long summer of legislative work.

House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said discussions were ongoing about exactly which bills would be taken into consideration during the session. She would not count out the possibility of tackling changes to the relief-from-abuse statute as part of the session.

“It’s not going to be a very long special session,” she said. “There’s going to be clear guidance on what is achievable.”

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