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Wolf signs law to hasten divorces for abuse victims

Mary Ann Thomas
vnddivorcelaw02042616
Dan Speicher | For The Tribune-Review
Lisa Illinsky, 46, of Springdale sits for a portrait in her home with a letter from state Rep. Frank Dermody after the passing of HB-12, which helps victims of domestic violence to be granted a divorce faster than the current two year process. Photographed on Monday, April 24, 2016

A new law allows a victim of a documented personal injury crime by a spouse to get a divorce finalized within 90 days of filing.

The crime can be either a misdemeanor or felony offense including assault, kidnapping, human trafficking, sexual offense, robbery, arson, victim or witness intimidation, and accidents involving personal injury.

Currently, divorce proceedings can be drawn out for two years.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed House Bill 12 on Thursday. The measure, which will change the state divorce law, passed unanimously in both the state House and Senate.

Lisa Illinsky, 46, of Springdale said she pressed for the changes because of personal experience.

“When they first phoned me, I was just so excited and I just cried,” Illinsky said of hearing about Wolf’s support for the new law. “Victims out there have something to make it easier to get out of an abusive marriage.”

Illinsky approached state House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, who first introduced the legislation for the 2011-2012 legislative session.

“This is another case where an individual citizen spoke up (to make a) difference and make an important change in state law,” said Bill Patton, Dermody’s press secretary.

Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Allentown, introduced the latest versions of the bill.

It’s hard to say how many will benefit from the new law, but it will provide much needed relief to victims, according to Geoff Brace, Schlossberg’s legislative assistant.

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, more than 32,000 Pennsylvanians filed for protection from abuse orders, according to Brace.

“There are relationships where spousal abuse is a reality and this law provides an opportunity for a clean break and allows the victim of abuse to start fresh,” Brace said.

The new law is welcomed by abuse victim advocates.

When an abusive spouse is involved in a divorce, two years of legal proceedings allows a “pattern of control and abuse,” said Lori G. Sywensky, executive director of the Turning Point of Lehigh Valley, a women’s shelter in Allentown.

When a victim is leaving an abusive spouse, their interactions are 70 times more likely to result in assault, Sywensky said.

If an abusive spouse has been convicted of a personal injury crime against the spouse, the new divorce law presumes the consent from the abusive spouse for divorce proceedings.

The new law prevents court-ordered divorce counseling if a spouse filed a protection from abuse order and if the abuser has been convicted of a personal injury crime against the spouse.

“The counseling requirement is unrealistic when you have a partner who has assaulted you,” Sywensky said.

Wolf said in a news release: “When someone else experiences spousal abuse, it reflects — and often reinforces — a number of negative forces. It promotes a culture of unfairness and discrimination. It feeds on the pernicious idea that some people have clearer rights than others.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4691 or [email protected].

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