Singleton, Mosquera & Vainieri Huttle Bill to Strengthen Protections for Domestic Violence Victims Advances

An Assembly panel on Monday approved legislation Assembly Democrats Troy Singleton, Gabriela Mosquera and Valerie Vainieri Huttle sponsored to strengthen legal protections for domestic violence victims.

The bill (A-4034), dubbed "Monica's Law," is named for 31-year old Monica Paul, who was shot to death in June of 2008 in the presence of her 11-year-old daughter at a Montclair YMCA. Convicted in the killing was her estranged husband Kenneth Duckett, against whom she had obtained a restraining order.

"We've come a long way since the Domestic Violence Prevention Act was passed in the early '90s, but as we continue to examine this issue more closely, we find many new ways in which our legal and law enforcement system can work to better protect victims and their families," said Singleton (D-Burlington). "The tragic death of Monica Paul is just one example of how we can create an additional safety net within our judicial system to prevent warning signs from being overlooked."

The bill would require the Administrative Office of the Courts, in consultation with the Supreme Court Statewide Domestic Violence Working Group, to develop a parenting time questionnaire to be completed in any proceeding to determine custody or parenting time by a parent asserting a concern for the safety or well-being of a child where ordered by the court. The questionnaire would collect information for use with an evidence-based guide of risk considerations to assist the court in determining custody and parenting time alternatives where there is a potential risk to the safety or well-being of a child from a parent who is entitled to parenting time. The questionnaire shall include, but is not limited to, information regarding: the parents and children; the parent's recommendations for parenting time alternatives; the availability of transportation; the history of domestic violence, child abuse, or other violent or threatening behavior of a parent; the exposure of children to domestic violence or other violent or threatening behavior of a parent; the other parent's history of substance abuse; the other parent's criminal history; the other parent's history of mental illness; the results of prior parenting time efforts; the other parent's capacity to care for the child; and any other information deemed relevant by the court.

"Children can often be used as a pawn by domestic violence perpetrators to continue inserting themselves in their victim's life. I know this first hand," said Mosquera (D-Camden/Gloucester). "An active restraining order should be a clear warning to the court to consider how child visitation may impact the victim and the children."

The bill also stipulates that, in any court proceeding to establish custody or parenting time of a child, if one parent asserts a concern for the safety of the child due to past violent or threatening behavior from the other parent, the court shall temporarily suspend or restrict parenting time and order the parent asserting safety concerns to complete a parenting time questionnaire, unless the court finds that the statements made by the parent seeking parenting time restrictions are arbitrary and capricious.

Upon request, court professional staff shall assist the parent in completing the questionnaire, or a parent may seek the assistance of an attorney, a domestic violence advocate, or a licensed social worker, family therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist to complete the questionnaire. A parent shall not be required to complete the parenting time questionnaire, in part or in its entirety, if they believe that it would create any possibility of further risk of harm from the other parent.

"It shouldn't take a tragedy to spur action, but hopefully Monica Paul's life will serve as the impetus for greater protections for other victims of domestic violence," said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). "With this legislation, we can create an additional layer of protection for victims of domestic violence and their children."

Additionally, the court may order continued suspension of parenting time only when a parent is provided with procedural due process and the court finds on the record no other alternative would protect the safety and well-being of the child. If there is any allegation during the court proceedings that a parent has physically or emotionally abused a child, the court shall refer the matter to the Division of Child Protection and Permanency in the Department of Children and Families for investigation.

The measure was advanced by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.