Reforms to divorce law will help protect victims in abusive relationships

By TRHESA BARKSDALE PATTERSON,
In 2007, a two-day divorce trial took place in a Mississippi courtroom. A woman sought a divorce from her husband on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. She testified that her husband sexually assaulted her numerous times, physically and verbally abused her, and threatened her with a gun.
Despite her husband’s denial of the allegations, the trial court granted the woman a divorce on the cruelty ground, based on her sworn testimony. However, in 2010, the Mississippi Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision because the woman had not provided additional evidence to support her sworn testimony. In legal terms, this additional evidence is called “corroboration.”
In 2010, Mississippi law required injured spouses to provide corroboration to support their testimony about the other spouse’s cruelty. Corroboration was difficult to provide because police reports and petitions for protection from domestic violence, which only restated an injured spouse’s testimony, did not count as additional evidence. Further, acts of cruelty often occur without witnesses, and injured spouses often keep harm a secret from family and friends. The hidden and secretive nature of cruelty worked against injured spouses when they would not have witnesses available to support their testimony at trial. Lastly, injured spouses rarely ask their children, with knowledge of the harm, to testify against another parent. Thus, the legal requirement of corroboration sometimes prevented injured spouses from escaping harmful marriages. 
Beginning on July 1, 2017, thanks to the work of state senator Sally Doty, state representative Andy Gipson, Center for Violence Prevention Director Sandy Middleton, and others, Mississippi no longer requires a spouse seeking a divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment to provide additional evidence to support the injured spouse’s testimony. Trial judges may now consider the spouse’s testimony and all other available evidence to determine whether to grant divorce, as judges already do when considering Mississippi’s other statutory divorce grounds, such as adultery and desertion.
Because lawmakers reformed our divorce laws, trial court decisions, like the one made in the case discussed above, will not be reversed. An injured spouse now has an opportunity to be granted a divorce on the cruelty ground, based on her sworn testimony. Moreover, the removal of the complex corroboration requirement makes it easier for injured spouses to represent themselves at trial.   
In addition to removing the corroboration requirement, lawmakers also added the term “spousal domestic abuse” to the habitual cruel and inhuman treatment standard. Under the new law, a trial court may grant a divorce when a spouse proves spousal domestic abuse, which includes, but is not limited to, attempts to cause bodily injury; purposely, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury; and attempts by physical menace to put a spouse in fear of imminent serious bodily harm. Spousal domestic abuse may also be established by showing the offending spouse engaged in a pattern of threats; intimidation; emotional abuse; verbal abuse; forced isolation; sexual extortion; sexual abuse; or stalking or aggravated stalking, as defined by Mississippi’s stalking statute.
While abusive marriages and relationships are hard to discuss, and divorce is difficult to confront, the people of Mississippi must be informed about our divorce laws. These laws may be instrumental in on our lives, or those of our loved ones. While harm will undoubtedly continue to occur, Mississippi now affords an easier way out for an injured spouse. Finally, the law protects children by allowing them to escape the consequences of abuse.