Story by: ALYSSA DANDREA

After restraining order requests and calls to the state’s 24-hour domestic violence hotline plummeted this spring, advocates say there are now positive signs that more victims in need of help are reaching out.

Coinciding with New Hampshire’s stay-at-home order due the pandemic, the court system saw a 21% drop in domestic violence petitions filed in March and April compared to the same time period in 2019 and a 30% drop in stalking petitions. The downward trend continued through May, but this summer a spike in the numbers suggests a reversal.

Whether it will hold remains to be seen, but advocates say the latest data is encouraging, and they continue to monitor the situation closely.

A total of 357 domestic violence petitions were filed in July, up from 284 in June and 216 in May. July’s total is more in line with pre-pandemic averages for this time of year.

“Crisis centers are reporting that compared to earlier on in the pandemic they are seeing an increase in the number of victims and survivors in need of support services and who are seeking help in filling out a domestic violence or stalking petition,” said Pamela Keilig, public policy specialist for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “Given last year’s trends, we do expect that more petitions will be filed during the summer months, and throughout the state we continue to see an increase lethality and complex situations.”

This past May, the New Hampshire Judicial Branch in partnership with the coalition, the state’s 13 crisis centers and New Hampshire Legal Assistance launched a remote filing option for victims to seek protective orders online. The remote option requires victims to work with a crisis center advocate or the Strafford County Family Justice Center to complete the necessary forms and safely guide them through the electronic submission process.

While the system is still in its infancy, advocates, attorneys and court officials agree the technology has provided expanded access to those in need of the potentially life-saving protection but who face access barriers enhanced by COVID-19. Circuit and superior courts throughout the state have operated on a restricted basis since mid-March and continue to limit in-person hearings, but are prioritizing these types of requests, as well as child abuse and custody matters, judges told the Monitor previously.

A total of 14 domestic violence and stalking petitions were filed electronically in June, whereas there were 23 filed in July. Experts expect August to surpass July given the number of petitions submitted online in just the month’s first week.

“We really had no idea how many petitions might come in this way after we made the option available,” said Sarah Freeman, domestic violence program manager for the New Hampshire Judicial Branch. “As advocates become more comfortable with this option and the technology, we’ve seen more victims electing it and a few more petitions come in. At the same time, people are also starting to feel more comfortable than they did in March, for example, going to their local courthouse to file in person, so the total numbers are going up, as well.”

Advocates are available 24/7 through the state’s domestic violence hotline, but e-filing of the domestic violence and stalking petitions is limited to Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. In-person filings are still accepted until 4 p.m.

In order to file online, the petitioner must include a working phone number that it is safe for court staff to call within 30 minutes to an hour after the petition is received, Freeman said. If the call isn’t answered, court staff will leave a nonspecific voice message – in an effort not to compromise the victim’s safety – that must then be returned by 4 p.m. the same day or the petition will be dismissed.

Once the request for a protective order is submitted, the filing is given priority status. If a judge grants the petition, court staff will follow up with the petitioner to schedule a hearing, which can take place over the phone, and confirm if the order should be issued in person, by mail or by email.

New Hampshire Legal Assistance provides representation to victims of stalking and domestic violence at that final protective order hearing. While those referrals dropped significantly this past spring, attorneys are now seeing an increase in the numbers back to pre-pandemic levels, said Erin Jasina, director of NHLA’s Domestic Violence Project.

“We expect that they’ll continue to go up and even possibly surpass what we were seeing prior to March,” Jasina said. “The new e-filing process is something we see as a necessity to ensure everyone has access to the courts, and we’d like to see it continue beyond the pandemic. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and that’s why presenting survivors with a number of options works well, so they can make the choice that’s safest for them.”

The court system launched its remote filing system as a temporary solution in late May to ensure that the state’s most vulnerable populations could access justice. Whether it’s a viable long-term option is unclear at this time, but court officials are keeping an open mind amid the uncertainty and ever-changing new normal.

“We don’t know what the challenges will be in the next two months or even in a year I don’t anticipate it’s going away any time soon, but I can’t give a definitive time frame,” Freeman said. “We will continue to work closely with the advocacy community so they have the most up-to-date information about the status of courthouse operations and services, and so they can best inform their clients.”

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence, advocates are available 24/7 to provide free and confidential support through the statewide hotline at 1-866-644-3574. The statewide sexual assault hotline is 1-800-277-5570. You don’t have to be in crisis to reach out.

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