The Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence is proposing legislation that would allow victims of domestic violence to apply for a restraining order online even after the current state of emergency to limit the spread of COVID-19 is lifted.
Liza Andrews, director of public policy and communications at the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that the organization plans to present the legislation to the Judiciary Committee in January.
Advocates for victims of domestic violence say that the ability to file restraining orders online during the pandemic has been a great help to their clients.
Karen Foley O’Connor, executive director at The Network in Enfield, said that the remote process allowed people without access to transportation to apply for the restraining order.
“I think it’s a no-brainer. It makes it easier for them to apply, and it ensures their safety,” she said.
Mary-Jane Foster, executive director at the Hartford-based domestic violence shelter Interval House, said that the online filing process, while at first met with some skepticism, has worked well for her clients so far.
Both women believe the process should be extended beyond the pandemic.
“I think we all grasp at these silver lining straws, but one of them is that the courts. The courts are being forced into the modern era,” said Foster.
A backlog of cases
Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, program manager for the Connecticut Judicial Branch, said in an email that the branch was able to put in place the new technologies using a combination of Microsoft Teams and Cisco. “The Branch is now handling a variety of criminal, civil, family and juvenile matters remotely,” she explained.
But agencies responding to the problem of domestic violence say that their clients’ cases are still facing lengthy postponements due to a backlog of hearings in the court system — a problem that new technology has not been able to entirely alleviate.
“Our advocates complain and complain, I know they’re very frustrated,” said Kathie Verano, executive director of Safe Futures, a domestic violence agency in New London.
Verano said that after the courts closed down in March, her clients’ cases were subject to long continuances. She said it was difficult to keep track of the constantly changing court dates.
Foley O’Connor said that at the start of the pandemic, the courts had stopped hearing all cases except for certain priority one cases — emergency ex-parte orders, which give temporary custody to one parent in the case of danger to the child, domestic violence and family violence cases and restraining orders.
While most courts have reopened, Enfield Court, one of the courts that hears cases from clients at the Network, remains closed, meaning that their cases are being heard in Hartford Court. Like Verano, O’Connor said that she has seen multiple continuances. The typical length of a continuance is four weeks or less, but in November, according to O’Connor, some cases continued into 2021.
“It just caused a lot of anxiety and fear to clients who were waiting for cases to be adjudicated,” said O’Connor.
Stearley-Hebert said that the courts were hearing domestic violence cases even at the beginning of the pandemic.
“At this point, all types of cases are being heard with the exception of jury trials. Cases are proceeding. From the start of the pandemic to now, domestic violence cases have been and will remain a top priority,” she said.
In addition, O’Connor and Verano both said that fewer individuals were being held on bond and bond amounts were being lowered. According to O’Connor, offenders have been given promises to appear in situations when they might have previously been held on bond — a problem given that many of her clients were living in the same communities as their abusers.
Verano and O’Connor both also reported more violations of protective orders.
Mary-Jane Foster, executive director at the Hartford-based domestic violence shelter Interval House, said her organization saw a backlog of hearings in criminal court. She also said it was nearly impossible to obtain a divorce, which, she said, could leave a victim in a kind of limbo.
“It’s hard to move on with your life and make your plans … when these things are hanging over your head,” she said.
The challenges of technology
An online restraining order isn’t a perfect fix, according to advocates.
In a recent conversation moderated by Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, president and CEO of the Coalition, Karen Jarmoc, said that even with the executive order allowing online relief, applications for restraining orders have decreased by 50 percent.
Verano said part of this was that some victims, especially those who live in rural areas, don’t have access to the necessary technology.
Foster said that while the online restraining order filing process doesn’t build a relationship of trust between victims and court advocates, she said that this can be easily overcome.
State Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, said she would absolutely support legislation to write into law the executive order allowing online applications, as long as the legislation retained the penalties for making a false claim.
The current executive order waives a requirement that applications be accompanied by an affidavit signed in front of a notary. Instead, the order includes language affirming that applications are made “under penalty of false statement pursuant to section 53a-157b of the Connecticut General Statutes.”
Under these terms, making a false statement is viewed as a Class A Misdemeanor, for which the punishment is up to a year in jail or up to a $2,000 fine.
Palm said she believed that including this language in the proposed legislation would “allay any of the naysayers.”
“It can work toward a solution to a very important problem in a very easy way,” she said.
Andrews said that the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence does not plan to ask that the ability to have virtual hearings be included in the proposed legislation.
State statutes mandate that a hearing take place between 7 and 14 days after the application for a restraining order has been filed in order for the restraining order to be made permanent. However, Andrews said that advocates have found that virtual hearings have positives and negatives.
Verano said that she would like in the future to have an area at Safe Futures where her clients could come and access the courtroom electronically. This way, she said, the client will have support and know they are in a safe place.
But Verano said that some of her clients would prefer to attend the hearings in person.
“What we’re hearing is that the victim wants to be there,” she said. “They don’t know the system will take them seriously on a video.”
State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, also raised some concerns. She said it would be important to take into account ease of access, how technological glitches would be handled and potential pitfalls of remote meetings — like the inability to know who else is in the virtual room.
“There are definite pluses, but I think we have to bear in mind that technology, too, has its drawbacks,” she said.
Still, Cheeseman said that if there was a way to adjust for these issues, she could see herself supporting the bill.
“Provided this gives everybody the normal access they would have … I think it makes sense.”