Story by: Lena Tillett

Victims of domestic violence now have a simpler and safer way to file for protective orders.

Now, a growing number of counties in North Carolina have a live video tele-conference that connects victims to judges.

Ten years ago, Jessica Smith, a domestic abuse survivor, didn’t feel safe when she filed for a protective order.

“I was in an abusive relationship — the final time that he physically abused me, he had broken my jaw,” Smith said.

The next day, Smith went to the Wake County Courthouse to file for a protective order against her husband. With her jaw wired shut, she faced questions from a judge, knowing her abuser might be in the same building.

“And it was one of the worst experiences of my entire life,” Smith said. “It feels like the system is set up against you.”

Alamance County was the first in the state to implement an “E-Courts” domestic violence system. Now, 11 counties offer it, with three more counties soon to be added.

Stephanie Satkowiak, a domestic violence specialist, said the idea is simple.

“That a victim of violence could access a safe, secure remote location…access justice remotely,” she said.

At domestic violence agencies like Interact in Raleigh, a remote courtroom allows the victim to interact with a judge and e-file protective order documents. More help is offered in the same safe place.

“They’re able to immediately be connected to our crisis counseling — to our case management services, support group and shelter, if needed,” said Rachel Gonwa with Interact.

Without e-filing, court advocates say many abuse victims begin to fear the process more than their abuser.

“Those are cases that tend to have repeat filers — and tend to also be linked to incidences of further violence to include domestic violence homicide,” Satkowiak said.

Smith followed through with her case and said she is glad remote courtrooms now exist to help calm the storm of fear and confusion for others.

“[They just] get that minute they need to figure out what are my next steps going to be? And someone is there presenting them with the next steps,” Smith said.

One state domestic violence advocate says an effective E-Courts systems require a close partnership between district court judges, elected clerks, the county sheriff and domestic violence agencies.

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