Georgia Legislature invests in support of victims of stalking, domestic violence

The Georgia Capitol. (PHOTO by BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM)
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The Georgia Capitol. (PHOTO by BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM)

Victims of stalking, dating violence and sexual assault received new help from state legislators who this year passed several bills that aim to bolster support for survivors of abuse.

Lawmakers passed bills that make it easier for Georgians who are being stalked to get out of a residential lease, allow those in violent dating relationships to obtain protective orders and better track sexual assault evidence. Legislators also passed a budget that includes additional money for domestic violence shelters and sexual assault centers.

Those efforts are personal for freshman state Rep. Mesha Mainor, an Atlanta Democrat. Mainor said she has been stalked by a former campaign volunteer for about two years. The man, Corwin Monson, is accused of violating the protective order a judge granted Mainor and is in jail awaiting trial. He has pleaded not guilty to aggravated stalking charges.

“I honestly feel so good about what happened this session,” Mainor said. “This is about safety. If we don’t feel safe, we can’t go to work, we can’t go to the grocery store, we can’t go to the gas station. And stalking is an underreported crime.”

Senate Bill 75, sponsored by Stone Mountain Democratic state Sen. Kim Jackson, is an extension of legislation passed in 2018 that allowed victims of domestic violence who’d been granted a family violence protective order to break their lease in 30 days without a penalty, regardless of how much time is left on the contract. SB 75 allows those who’ve been granted stalking protective orders to do the same.

Jackson said people who are being stalked often feel like victims in their own homes even when the stalking is done online or doesn’t include violent threats. About 312,000 Georgians are stalked each year, according to the Georgia Commission on Family Violence.

“If someone has been stalking you via social media, the end of that story often is that they will come and find you in person,” she said. “Being able to get out of their lease to get a fresh and safe start over” is important.

State Rep. Houston Gaines, an Athens Republican, said Georgia also had left a loophole open for those who are victims of dating violence. The state currently grants protective orders for those who are or have been married or who currently or previously lived together. But those who were being abused by someone they were dating had no opportunity to get protection from the court.

Judges can grant temporary protective orders for periods ranging from 30 days to a year when a victim proves someone has physically harmed or stalked them. Judges have the ability to restrict someone found to have physically harmed or stalked a victim in a variety of ways, such as banning contact with that person or to order a psychiatric evaluation.

House Bill 231 would allow those who are pregnant, currently dating someone or who have ended a dating relationship within the previous six months to obtain a protective order against someone who is abusing them.

“This is a tool that is a lifesaver,” Gaines said. “(Temporary protective orders) are tools victims use to seek relief from their abuser.”

Legislators also approved House Bill 255, which would create a tracking system of rape kits from initial collection to receipt, storage and analysis. Victims would be able to follow the evidence as it moves through the criminal justice system, including prosecutions.

The bill is the state’s latest effort to empower victims after the General Assembly passed laws in recent years requiring police to save sexual assault evidence and clear backlogs of untested rape kits.

All three bills have been sent to Gov. Brian Kemp for his consideration.

And lawmakers also approved an increase of about $1.8 million in the budget to fill a shortfall to the state’s domestic violence shelters caused by a federal spending cut in the Victims of Crime Act, known as VOCA.

“This will help mitigate some of that pain,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican. “While we can help plug that hole temporarily, without federal intervention on VOCA, we’re just putting a finger in the dam.”

Mainor said she hopes the state continues to support victims of family violence.

“Stalking, domestic violence, rape — these are all nasty words that people don’t like to say in public,” she said. “Unless we talk about it, it continues to be taboo and I don’t want it to be taboo. I think we’re headed in the right direction.”