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Leonardo Angiulo: Parents’ Ability to Get a Restraining Order to Protect Their Kids

Monday, March 18, 2013

 

GoLocalWorcester Legal Expert Leonardo Angiulo

Any parent will tell you they would do whatever it takes to keep their kids safe. A recent opinion from the Supreme Judicial Court affirms parental use of restraining orders for that purpose, but highlights certain limitations. At the heart of the matter is whether the harm to be prevented is a matter of morality or one of law.

The case of E.C.O. v. Compton describes a relationship some parents may find objectionable, but one that is not prohibited by law. In this case, a 16-year-old girl from the North Shore of Massachusetts met a 24-year-old, male British citizen while traveling in England. They maintained contact through the internet and eventually engaged in consensual sexual acts. The young woman's father objected to this relationship and he filed for a restraining order in the appropriate court in her name.

The fundamental requirements for the issuance of a restraining order are: 1.) certain types of relationships and 2.) some abuse to be prevented. In order to be subject to a restraining order, the parties involved must either be household members, family or in a substantive dating relationship. The term abuse is defined as attempting or causing physical harm, placing another in fear of imminent serious harm or causing another to engage involuntarily in sexual relations by force, threat or duress.

In this recent case, the court was required to evaluate two aspects of the law to reach its opinion. First, the adult in this case claimed the parties had not been in a substantive dating relationship because of the miles between them and the limited amount of time they had spent together in person. Rather than permitting physical distance to define the relationship, the court looked to the nature of the communications for context. The minor and the adult interacted via video chat over approximately three months. In addition, there were representations of “love” by the adult towards the minor. The court found this was precisely the type of interaction deserving court involvement in appropriate circumstances. This was noted to be especially true given the unequal emotional maturity of the parties and the effect such representations would have on a minor.

The Supreme Judicial Court, however, focused on the consensual nature of the relationship in deciding a restraining order should not issue against the 24-year-old. Central to this decision was the fact that, under Massachusetts law, 16-year-olds can legally consent to sexual acts. The court's logic was where there was no evidence the man had harmed the young woman or forced her into anything, the only basis for the order was that the father didn't like the idea. While this is a morally understandable position, it is not a legal basis for a restraining order.  

 

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