By: Sara Coello
A lot went as expected when Paul Johnson was accused of beating and strangling his wife.
York County deputies arrested him the next day on the highest charge possible, and when a judge granted him a $15,000 bond, it came with the warning that he could be jailed again if he contacted her.
Hours after his release, Johnson was caught on camera at the Clover home where Shareika Johnson and their 5-year-old son, Paul Jr., lived. Deputies arrested him again — and a judge warned him to leave the woman alone before his trial.
But bond revocation in the county is complex, and solicitor Jenny Desch said victims generally have to appear in court and explain that the contact was unwanted. In the Johnson case, the wife stood up when asked to testify but froze and didn’t say anything in court, and the judge let Paul Johnson go with a warning to keep to himself.
He did, for a few months. But, in April, authorities say Johnson returned to their home and shot his family before turning the gun on himself.
The case horrified the community, where local authorities have long been focused on banding together to fight domestic violence. Officials who spend their careers trying to predict and curb abuse were gutted, but said state law and local courts make it confusing and painful for survivors to request protection.
Authorities, meanwhile, have to make judgment calls about how to handle cases when victims must decide whether reporting abuse puts them at risk of escalation.
“In (domestic violence), if you guess wrong, you have a body,” Desch said.
Even for the well-versed, South Carolina’s protective order system is complex. There are several types of orders, each pursued in different court systems for different reasons — meaning applicants are often ping-ponged between courts and departments trying to find the most appropriate route to safety.
A complicated system
A go-to option for many victims is a standard no-contact order that a judge hands down at bond hearings as a condition of release. But police can’t immediately arrest someone who violates that order and instead must contact a judge who orders the offender to 30 days in jail for contempt of court.
Survivors who have been married to, lived with or had a child with their abusers can file applications for orders of protection in family court. A family court judge bases the decision on evidence, including testimony, that physical or sexual abuse has occurred. A judge can then order a combination of measures to keep the victim safe, including forbidding contact, deciding temporary custody of children or granting one party sole use of their shared home until they agree on terms.
Restraining orders are intended to stop continuous abuse, so victims planning to apply for them have to gather proof that their abusers have hurt, threatened or harassed them at least twice before. Police reports are the most effective documentation and some judges are much likelier to accept them than hospital, workplace or school records that show similar behavior. The accused are served papers, then appear with the applicant before judges who decide whether to grant the six-month order.
The only lifetime option was introduced in 2015, when state lawmakers pledged to end the Palmetto State’s devastating rate of women killed by intimate partners. The person — a victim or witness who helped with prosecution — can apply for a lifetime restraining order in the court of common pleas, or request one when their abuser is convicted in family or general sessions court. After that point, violation is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Between the cracks
Even with the slew of avenues to filing for protection, some South Carolinians struggle to find one for which they qualify.
Same-sex partners who have lived together don’t qualify for family court orders unless they’ve been legally married. Couples who have dated but lived separately are out of luck unless they have a child together. Their best bet is a criminal finding against their abuser, which leaves many vulnerable.
The types of threats that qualify as criminal are often difficult for victims to document until they reach a boiling point.
State Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, used to work as a solicitor and remembers his struggle to help a woman who feared retribution if she applied for an order of protection.
“What you’re telling me is that something has got to happen to me before I can do anything?” he remembers her asking. And that was true — threats are hard to prove without witnesses or evidence of a physical assault, and coordinating legal action takes time. There’s no special protection for victims in the interim.
The complications are compounded when, as is often the case, the victim and abuser don’t both live in the county where the violence occurred. Communication can break down between key parties, and the responsibility of coordinating them often falls on the victim.
But no matter how legislators, advocates and local officials try to patch difficulties in the process, it’s built on a bedrock of legal tradition in which petitioners are expected to navigate the maze of procedures themselves.
Just 10 percent of survivors are represented by attorneys, while accused abusers often have access to counsel, said Patricia Ravenhorst, general counsel for the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
Advocates try to fill in the blanks by helping survivors prepare their testimonies and giving emotional support when possible, but they can’t speak for survivors in front of a judge. S.C. Legal Services has compiled forms and instructions online, but can’t offer one-size-fits-all guidance for filing and hearing processes in different counties.
“The need far outstrips the demand,” Ravenhorst said. “Our immediate goal is to move to a system where every survivor of domestic violence gets the attorney to represent them through the whole process.”
Nicole Burnham, a court advocate with My Sister’s House, does what she can to help survivors in Berkeley and Charleston counties. That usually means going over the day’s docket and finding petitioners at the courthouse, where she can quickly coach them through the process of presenting their case at a first hearing.
There’s a lot to navigate though, she said. Sometimes she gets to spend the better part of an hour explaining the judge’s patterns to a survivor, other times a few minutes or no time at all. Until the coronavirus shuttered courts to all but the key parties, she sat in on hearings and met with petitioners afterward.
“And then I go into triaging … going over what happened, figuring out a safety plan,” Burnham said. “It’s very short-term case management.”
‘We’re lucky if she shows up for a third’
The biggest obstacle Burnham sees is when authorities can’t find an abuser to serve with papers. Judges can’t hear cases without both parties’ knowledge, so victims can show up for court several times, only to be issued a continuance until the papers can be served.
“It feels like a penalty against the victim,” Burnham said. “After two continuances, we’re lucky if she shows up for a third.”
To speed the process, authorities will sometimes ask the victim for help in finding the abuser, which Burnham said puts them at risk of escalating their perpetrators’ wrath.
“That is the antithesis of what we’re telling her in safety planning,” Burnham said.
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