Originally created 06/12/04

Abuse laws offer less aid in pregnancy cases



They've been kicked, beaten and bitten for returning items to the father of their children after the relationship ends.

For not saying the right thing to him.

Sometimes, just for being an easy target.

Sadly, Nancy Johnson, Richmond County's assistant solicitor general, has seen more than her share of abused pregnant women over the years.

"It happens all the time," she said.

Although Ms. Johnson could not provide the number of pregnant women she sees abused, the Georgia Coalition of Domestic Violence estimates that one in four pregnant women are abused at some point during their pregnancy.

And an exception in Georgia's family violence code makes it easier for some men who abuse pregnant women to escape with light sentences.

Georgia's family violence law does not cover pregnant women who have never married the father of their child or have never lived in the same household with him. Nor does it cover unborn children.

"Technically, there is no living child at the time of this union," said Ms. Johnson, speaking of the technicality that excludes an unborn child from the code.

The law does apply to a number of physical acts between past or present spouses; people who are parents of the same child; parents and children; and stepparents and stepchildren.

It also covers foster parents and foster children, along with people living or formerly living in the same household.

Family violence does not include reasonable discipline administered by a parent to a child in the form of corporal punishment, restraint or detention, the code states.

Because of the code's strict definitions, it limits who law enforcement officers can charge with family violence, Ms. Johnson said.

Law enforcement and family violence aid organizations differ on whether the law should be changed.

Richmond County sheriff's Sgt. Mike Anchor said the strict interpretation of the code gives abusers the "green light" to hurt pregnant women.

Take a May 4 case Sgt. Anchor responded to - a fight at an Augusta home between a woman seven months pregnant and the unborn baby's father.

An incident report stated that woman told deputies she went to the man's house to return some of his belongings.

The man became angry, and a struggle between the two began. She told deputies the man bit her on the back and scratched her hand, although the report said the man denied hurting her.

The woman, 34, declined to comment for this article.

Sgt. Anchor said he saw physical injuries on the woman that substantiated her claim. The officer also found the man as the primary aggressor in the fight.

But by the lights of Georgia's family violence law, what Sgt. Anchor saw and determined didn't matter because the couple weren't living together.

According to the incident report, deputies did not make an arrest, "because the warrant's office would not issue a warrant until the baby is born."

"If they lived together, we could have gotten a warrant," Sgt. Anchor said.

The victim in an incident such as this can seek a warrant on lesser charges, such as simple battery, Ms. Johnson said. But a family violence charge is more serious than a lesser violence charge, such as simple battery, because only a judge can set a bond for an offender charged with family violence.

Those charged with family violence do not receive an automatic bond, Sgt. Anchor said.

A family violence conviction is a misdemeanor unless the person has battered the same person more than once, Ms. Johnson said. Then it can become a felony, she said.

Each case is different, however, and can result in different punishments, like counseling, fines or jail time.

A lawyer representing SAFEHomes, an Augusta-based organization assisting domestic violence victims in 10 counties, says she doesn't think the law should be reworded to include unborn children because it is too difficult to prove the paternity of an unborn child.

Instead of changing the family violence code, Whenda James, SAFEHomes' attorney, recommended an anti-violence law be established for people who are dating.

Reach Kate Lewis at (706) 823-3215 or kate.lewis@augustachronicle.com.