By Paul Kiefer
Brenda recognized the sound of her daughter’s abuser’s truck as he sped past their small family home on a residential street in Tacoma. When he reached the end of the block, he turned around and did it again. Brenda opened the curtains to watch him pass. “He slowed down,” she recalled, “and he stared at me.”
This was far from Brenda’s first run-in with the man who has tormented her daughter for more than a year. But after his harassment forced her daughter to move back home—he fired a flare gun into one apartment where she lived and tore the door off another—Brenda decided it was time to request a protection order from a court.
A civil protection order temporarily forbids an abuser from contacting or following their victim; if the abuser violates the order, they could face fines or jail time. If a prosecutor chooses not to file charges against an abuser or if the victim decides not to file criminal charges, the victim can turn to a civil court as an alternative source of relief. Courts in Washington can issue six kinds of civil protection orders, each geared toward different types of abuse or harassment.
The harassment had been too overwhelming for her daughter to request a protection order on her own; once the abuser began to harass and intimidate her entire family, Brenda saw an opportunity to ask a court for help. For Brenda, an anti-harassment order was the only option: Because the abuser was her daughter’s former partner, not her own, Brenda couldn’t request a domestic violence protection order. Most civil protection orders are short-term; in some cases, people experiencing abuse can petition for the orders to be effective for a year or longer.
But in counties across Washington, victims of harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence have to navigate a disorienting—and disheartening—bureaucratic maze to receive a protection order. For Brenda, who owns a car, works from home, and could afford the $90 filing fee, the process was still disorienting and time-consuming, though she ultimately received a two-year protection order. For many other people who have experienced domestic violence and their families in Washington, the barriers to filing a protection order have been insurmountable.
“I’ve been at hearings where victims had to stand three to five feet away from someone who may have been trying to kill them for years,” Maria Pintar, a former legal advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, said.
These barriers primarily impact women: nationally, women are roughly twice as likely as men to experience intimate partner violence, and more than twice as likely to experience stalking; the vast majority of abusers are men. Low-income women, Indigenous women and women born outside of the United States are particularly vulnerable to all forms of harassment and abuse, and the same groups also face the most significant barriers to accessing civil protection orders.
Lawmakers in the Washington State Senate are considering a bill that many survivors and advocates hope could remedy some of the longstanding flaws in the civil protection order system. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Kirkland) and Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45), would streamline the process for courts to consider and grant protection orders. “At its core,” Goodman told PubliCola, “this is about improving access to justice.”
Goodman argues that the proposed law would address an array of obstacles to protection orders simultaneously. If passed, the bill would replace the web of state laws that currently govern the civil protection order process with a single law that standardizes not only the procedures for petitioning a court for a protection order, but the paperwork itself: Goodman described a “master petition” that would lighten the workload for petitioners.
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Currently, each type of protection order is governed by separate state laws; those laws determine how a victim can petition for a protection order, the court in which they file the petition—either district or superior court—and how courts can modify, extend or terminate protection orders, among other details. The quantity and type of evidence needed for each type of protection order also varies: someone petitioning for a sexual assault protection order would need to divulge the details of the assault, while a person seeking an anti-harassment order does not need to provide a comparable amount of personal information.
Before the pandemic, people seeking domestic violence protection orders in King County faced an uphill battle. “There are only two [superior] courthouses in King County—the thirteenth largest county in the country,” said Mary Ellen Stone, the director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. “Someone might need to take two buses to get to court. It has to be easier than that.” For people in rural counties without a car or reliable public transit, traveling to and from a county courthouse could verge on impossible.
Most people seeking protection orders arrive at the courthouse alone; nonprofit legal aid groups that represent victims of intimate partner violence in civil cases are typically stretched thin, so most are left to navigate the paperwork and hearings without the help of a lawyer. The paperwork needed to request a protection order can be long and circuitous, and if a person files a petition with the wrong court, they may have to begin the start the entire process again—instead of referring the petition to the correct court, judges can simply dismiss or deny a petition filed in the wrong court.
Hearings themselves can be even more daunting, said Maria Pintar, a former legal advocate for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in King County. “I’ve been at hearings where victims had to stand three to five feet away from someone who may have been trying to kill them for years,” she said. “And when they’re waiting for their case to be called, even in the big courthouses, they might have to sit on small benches very close to a person who they’re terrified of.”
The new legislation would also set a deadline for courts—2023 for superior courts and 2026 for other courts—to accept petitions through an online filing system or by mail, rather than requiring petitioners to visit the courthouse to pick up and file paperwork. Similarly, the proposal would allow courts to hold protection order hearings remotely, allowing people to avoid a face-to-face encounter with their abuser.
Some county courts—including in King County—temporarily allowed online filing and remote hearings as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Goodman and Dhingra hope to use the bill to cement those adjustments into state law. “We have learned lessons from the pandemic response that we didn’t anticipate,” Goodman told PubliCola. “We created greater efficiency in the court system, and better access to justice for victims. So we want to make that permanent.”
Other significant details of the bill are more subtle. For instance, the proposal would give judges the ability to switch the roles of the parties to a protection order if they realize that the petitioner (the person seeking the protection order) is the abuser and the respondent (the person subject to the court order) is their victim. Those scenarios, Pintar noted, are unnervingly common. “In my experience, abusers regularly try to use the system to their benefit,” she said.
It would also expand the definition of domestic violence to include an array of manipulation tactics grouped together under the term “coercive control.” At the moment, said Pintar, a person seeking a domestic violence protection order needs to prove to a court that they have experienced physical abuse or the imminent threat of physically harmed. The new definition, she said, would acknowledge myriad other forms of abuse. “It could include an abuser threatening to report a survivor to immigration authorities,” she said, “or ruining a survivor’s credit so they can’t find stable housing.”
Though some advocates have raised concerns that abusers might use the expanded definition of domestic violence against their victims—for instance, an abuser could claim that their victim’s frequent calls to a legal aid clinic constituted a type of threat—Pintar said that the key to preventing misuse of civil protection orders are well-trained judges. Notably, Goodman and Dhingra’s proposal would also require judges to receive more extensive training on domestic violence, sexual assault and the possible impacts of protection orders—a measure intended to prevent misinformed or careless judges from undermining reforms.
The bill passed to the state senate on March 4; its fate is now in the hands of the senate’s Law and Justice Committee.