Few people are as confused, vulnerable and frightened as women who have been battered. But trying to get a protective order can be both difficult and inconvenient.
For that reason, those who counsel victims of domestic violence are attempting to simplify the process through legislation that will be introduced during the 1989 session of the Utah Legislature. The Domestic Violence Amendments won approval from the Social Services Interim Subcommittee last week.The severity of the problem and the importance of the bill were explained to me by three experts who deal with domestic violence and its devastating result daily: Bob Terragno, Community Counseling Center; Arnold Gardner, director of Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake City; and Jane Langford, YWCA.
A woman who has been abused (more than 90 percent of abused adults are women) can get a protective order, good for up to 60 days, only if she can convince the judge that the threat to her is immediate and serious. She can't say something vague, like "he hit me once and might again."
Protective orders are now available through district courts - and can be issued only by district court judges. The complainant files with the court clerk and gets a judge assigned to the case. (There are seven separate legal pleadings, some multi-pages, that have to be filled out.) Then she has to approach the judge and get him to sign the order. If she's successful, she takes the paperwork back to the clerk, then takes a copy to the sheriff so his office can serve the defendant.
Along the way, there are costs. In Salt Lake County, unless the complainant can prove penury, the cost is $25 (until recently it was $85). There's a charge for having the papers served. And if the defendant is hard to find or can't be reached during routine hours, the complainant may need to hire a constable to serve it, at a greater cost. Most of the time, according to these experts, the abuser has control of the purse strings. Often, when a woman runs for her own protection, the children are all she takes with her. Then, of course, she may have to haul them along for the order-obtaining process.
The run-around is awkward and even intimidating. I wouldn't be wild about trying to find a judge to explain my problem to without help or at least an appointment. Fortunately, the Legal Aid Society, operating under a federal grant, can do the paperwork for women seeking protective orders locally. The service is also available in Utah County through Utah Legal Services.
But the really crazy thing about the existing process is the time requirement.
The defendant has to be given five working days' notice of a hearing, which must be set up within 10 calendar days. Sometimes, according to Gardner, that means there isn't time to serve the papers, especially in areas where the orders can be filed only three days a week. If that happens, the complainant has to start all over again.
Violation of a protective order's first two provisions - stay away from the complainant and off the property - is a Class B misdemeanor. And when the 60-day limit expires, it cannot be renewed. Only when the defendant makes another direct threat or actually abuses the woman can she get another one. At additional cost. And additional hassle.
A restraining order is not available to the complainant, because it has to be attached to some sort of litigation, like a divorce. And Gardner said that forces some women, who have already used their 60-day protective order and still need a cooling-off period, to file for a divorce they may not ultimately want in order to feel safe.
The new law, if passed, would double the time frames - 20 days to the hearing unless the defendant wants it moved up and 120 days effectiveness.
Terragno believes that domestic abuse is one of the places where we can actually end the violence, through policy changes and consistency.
"We have to let abusers know that this is a crime," he told me. "We need to say, `I don't care where you were raised or what the circumstances, we will have you in court. We will not tolerate this type of violence."
They said the legislation, which Gardner helped draft, is a start on dealing effectively with domestic violence, although really preventing it will take a dedicated effort involving education, counseling, and punishment. The bill also broadens the list of people who can seek a protective order and those who can grant it (a pro tem, for example, if a district judge is not available).
It's a step they said we must take if we want to end the cycle of abuse.