LIHUE — Local leaders are celebrating a new law aimed at better protecting Hawaii families — specifically keiki — from domestic violence.
Introduced in January by Kauai Rep. Derek Kawakami, D-Wailua-Haena, at the request of the Kauai County Prosecutor’s Office, House Bill 1993 makes it a Class C felony to abuse a family or household member in the presence of a juvenile under the age of 14. Previously, it was a misdemeanor.
The bill was signed into law Friday by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.
Kawakami said it is important to provide extra protection for that age group, one he described as “particularly vulnerable.”
“Unfortunately, our keiki, they’re the collateral damage whenever an unfortunate event like this happens,” he said. “First and foremost, we felt it was appropriate to shield them from this violence.”
A Class C felony is punishable by up to five years in prison. The new law, which will go into effect July 1, extends the possible probationary period for offenders from two to five years. Misdemeanors are generally punishable by up to one year in jail and up to two years probation.
Renae Hamilton, executive director of the YWCA of Kauai, said her organization sees the impact domestic violence has on children every day when families come into the Family Violence Shelter, often with children and young teenagers who are just as scared as the parent.
“Scientific research clearly shows the relationship or the impact that fear, trauma, has on the brain, especially brains that are developing,” she said. “And this impact can cause lifelong serious challenges for children as they grow up.”
The bill also requires police officers to make a reasonable inquiry of witnesses or household members when physical abuse or harm is suspected and order a no-contact period of 48 hours.
Prior to the bill, the law said officers could question possible witnesses at their own discretion.
Kauai Prosecuting Attorney Justin Kollar said in a statement Tuesday that children who grow up seeing domestic violence in their homes are often traumatized, and experience a wide range of difficulties later in life.
“We need to break that cycle,” he said. “Family is so important in Hawaii. It is our mission to seek justice for all victims of domestic violence, and thanks to the hard work of our Kauai legislative delegation, each of whom supported this bill, and our local law enforcement partners, we have another way to execute that mission.”
In written testimony back in January, Kauai Police Chief Darryl Perry said the bill would correctly hold offenders of domestic violence accountable for the pain and emotional torture endured by the children witnessing the physical abuse of a loved one.
In 2013, KPD reportedly responded to 397 family abuse calls where physical violence had occurred, with more than one-third being witnessed by children. And those are only the reported cases.
“Children are affected by what they see,” Perry wrote. “Children exposed to battering become fearful and anxious; they never feel safe and often feel powerless or worthless. Violence then becomes their ‘norm,’ and the circle of violence continues.”
Hamilton voiced a similar concerns Tuesday, saying the more communities can do to decrease the number of children impacted by domestic violence, the greater the chance of ending the cycle.
“I think often parents don’t really see or acknowledge the impact that domestic violence is having on their children. Just because kids may not be in the room, doesn’t mean they may not be listening to it,” she said.
“It takes all of us addressing these issues to end domestic violence in our community,” she said.
Hamilton said the numbers referenced by Chief Perry in his testimony sound accurate, but may be a little higher in light of the fact that people are sometimes hesitant to tell the whole story.
The YWCA has not noticed any major differences in Kauai domestic violence statistics compared with the rest of the nation or other Hawaiian islands, she said.
• Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or email@example.com.