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Finding protection

Last April, an Oak Harbor woman explained in court that her estranged husband had held a gun to her, threatened to slit her throat, strangled her and promised to kill their children to teach her a lesson for leaving him.

She explained that she had to replace as many as 35 phones that he had destroyed or ripped out of the wall to prevent her from calling 911.

The court commissioner, who is similar to a judge, granted the woman a domestic violence protection order, which is a type of civil protection order. The order barred the man from coming within 150 yards of the woman or their children.

Seven months later the woman was in court again, but not because her husband had threatened or assaulted her again. He had ignored a court order to get treatment and was found in contempt of court.

The woman’s success with the civil protection order falls in line with findings of a recent study out of Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Researchers found that “women who experience threats of violence or abuse from an intimate partner may be best protected by a permanent civil protection order,” a press release about the study states.

At the same time, the study found that only 20 percent of the approximately 2 million women in the nation who are physically abused, stalked or raped by partners each year obtain these orders.

The study by researchers at Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center is published in the January 2003 issue of the “American Journal of Preventative Medicine.” Researchers conducted a series of interviews during a nine-month period with 400 victims of domestic crimes. Half of the women obtained temporary or permanent protection orders and the others did not.

Orders make

a difference

The women who received civil protection orders were significantly less likely to be threatened or abused. The researchers re-interviewed these women four months later and found that the protection order effect had grown even stronger.

“While obtaining a civil protection order is no guarantee further abuse will be prevented,” said Victoria Holt, a University of Washington professor and the study’s lead investigator, “health and criminal justice providers should consider providing information about civil protection orders to all individuals affected by intimate partner violence.”

Which is exactly what advocates at Whidbey’s Citizens Against Domestic and Sexual Violence do. Daniele Malvesti-Oliver, CADA’s legal advocacy program coordinator, helps victims of domestic and sexual violence through the process of obtaining civil protection orders.

She said as many as 60 victims come into CADA each month, though only 152 people filed for domestic violence protection orders in 2002, according to the clerk’s office.

“It’s an option that we let them know about,” Malvesti-Oliver said, “and it’s up to them if they want to pursue that.”

Civil protection orders are legally binding, court-ordered mandates designed to prevent partner abuse. A person who violates an order can face civil contempt, misdemeanor or felony charges. An assault in violation of an order, for example, may be considered a felony. It’s also a felony to violate a protection order three times.

Two basic order types

There are two basic types of civil protection orders. Domestic violence protection orders involve individuals who are intimate partners — like husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend. Anti-harassment orders are similar but don’t have to involve intimate partners.

Malvesti-Oliver said the process of obtaining protection orders is pretty straight forward and designed so that individuals don’t need attorneys. The paperwork is available for free through either Island County Superior Court, at the Law and Justice Center in Coupeville, or the District Court in Oak Harbor. CADA also has paperwork.

Malverti-Oliver explained that cases in which children are involved are handled in Superior Court and cases without kids are handled in District Court, though there can be some variation.

A man or women seeking civil protection needs to fill out a petition that explains the basics of why he or she wants the order. This usually involves a short narration. Based on this, the judge or court commissioner can issue a temporary order for protection and schedule a hearing for a permanent order. Law enforcement serves the orders to the alleged abusers.

What evidence is required

Court Commissioner Karen Lerner presides over protection order hearings every Monday afternoon in Superior Court. Since they are civil matters, there is a lower standard of proof than in criminal cases. Lerner said she’s not looking for proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but “a preponderance of evidence.”

Both sides get to tell their stories and offer any evidence they might have. Individuals often bring police reports, statements written by witnesses or officers, or a log of events that have occurred.

An Oak Harbor woman who was in court Monday was seeking an anti-harassment order against her estranged husband, who she claimed had been calling and harassing her at work and home. The man argued that the claim of harassment was “overblown,” but he didn’t seem upset when the judge approved the order for a six-month period. His wife happily agreed to allow him to continue to have regular contact with their son.

“The court wants to grant them,” Malvesti-Oliver said, “people just need to verbalize what’s going on.”

Lerner explained that protection orders are not one-size-fits-all, but individualized for each case. In some cases she may not allow any contact at all, but in others — especially when there are children involved — the parties may talk on the phone or exchange the kids at a public spot.

After the hearing, Malvesti-Oliver said she spends some time with the victim “de-briefing them” to make sure they understand what happened, what the next step might be and what to do if the abuser violates the order.

Malvesti-Oliver said she can understand why some women in abusive relationships may be reluctant to seek protection orders, though she’s surprised that only 20 percent do. She said these women “know their abusers best” and may be worried that standing up to them in that way may escalate the violence.

Still, Malvesti-Oliver said the orders are usually a great tool for keeping abusers safe, as the study finds. Also, she said the orders are helpful in an emotional way.

“They are very validating for a victim,” she said, “to see there is someone who knows what they are talking about.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-1166.

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