Statewide, victims of spousal abuse can now more easily get through the legal process of divorce. In Allegheny County, the legislation could not have come soon enough.

In 2015, Allegheny County had the highest number of victim deaths from domestic violence in the state with 17 deaths. In Philadelphia County, 16 people died as a result of domestic violence that year, according a report from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence [PCADV].

On April 12, Gov. Tom Wolf signed House Bill 12 to loosen statewide restrictions on divorce for victims of spousal abuse, allowing them to quickly exit an unsafe marriage.

According to a release from the governor’s office, until this bill passed, divorce could take up to two years without the consent of both individuals. Furthermore, before the divorce was finalized, the couple had to attend at least three court-mandated counseling sessions.

The bill, which passed unanimously, allows the court to assume consent of a party who has been convicted of a personal injury against their spouse. The victim can object to counseling if the victim has a protection from abuse order, if the court has previously convicted the spouse of a personal injury case or if the spouse is currently in or has been in the accelerated rehabilitation program for a personal injury case.

Lori G. Sywensky, executive director of the Turning Point of Lehigh Valley — an organization that advocates for victims of abuse  — said in a release that HB12 will be an “important tool” to help victims make the difficult decision of leaving an abusive spouse.

“Abusive partners do not just physically harm their spouses – they also abuse them emotionally and financially,” Sywenksy said in the statement. “HB12 ensures that the legal system works for victims and not as another tool that allows abusers to continue this abuse.”

According to a statement from the PCADV, most fatal incidents of domestic violence in the state occurred when the victim was seeking to end the abusive relationship, legal protection or custody of children.

Philadelphia and Allegheny counties had twice as many deaths from domestic violence as any other county in the state. Allegheny County has the second highest number of domestic violence-related fatalities since 2006 with 179 total. Philadelphia had the highest number with 226 deaths. York County, the third highest, saw 67 deaths in that time.

Nationwide, domestic violence hotlines receive 21,000 calls per day, according to a report from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In 2014, Pennsylvania domestic violence programs saw up to 2,500 people who experienced domestic violence in one day.

Before signing the bill into law in Allentown, Wolf said the impact of spousal abuse was serious and widespread, and it was something he was committed to stopping in the state.

“Safety is a fundamental civil right and spousal abuse is a clear violation of that civil right,” Wolf said in the Bucks Herald County video of the signing. “When that violation occurs for any member of the community, it occurs for every member of that community. It violates the right of everyone to a safe society.”

Reach PublicSource intern Lauren Rosenblatt at lrosenblatt@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter @LRosenblatt_.

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