One morning last year, a middle-aged woman who had recently left a relationship she had been in since she was a teenager walked into the New York City Family Justice Center in Manhattan. She was referred to Alison Attanasio, a staff attorney at Sanctuary for Families, who said the woman recounted years of abuse. She had been threatened with a knife, had a chair broken over her head, and had been repeatedly hit in the face, leaving her red, swollen and bruised.
The woman said she had kept up contact with her abuser because they had children in common, but that he repeatedly made unwanted visits to her apartment, banging on her door to intimidate her when she was at home. It was working.
“Because of this history of physical violence she was extra afraid when he would come to her door, even when her door was locked,” says Attanasio, whose organization is located at the Family Justice Center’s office and represents part of the wraparound services provided there.
Attanasio says she told the woman, who was a Spanish speaker, that she could file for an order of protection to put a stop to the abusive behavior. The woman wanted to, but she was concerned about going into court and said she needed to be home in time to pick up her kids from school.
The ability to appear before a judge within hours, using Skype from the Family Justice Center conference room, made it possible for her get a temporary order of protection that same day. A Spanish language interpreter stood behind the judge during the hearing.
These kinds of video conferences, which Sanctuary for Families has experimented with locally, are now part of a statewide Remote Access Temporary Order of Protection Project, announced late last year after being authorized by an amendment of New York’s Judiciary Law and Family Court Act.
The pilot is already being adopted in 12 counties, including Manhattan and Westchester, and the goal is to implement the program in all counties statewide within two years.
Orders of protection dictate rules about what kinds of contact are allowed between two people and temporary ones can last until the next court date. The Remote Access program covers temporary orders that are issued out of family court, not from criminal court.
The program, overseen by the Office of the Statewide Coordinating Judge for Family Violence Cases led by Judge Deborah Kaplan, works with designated advocacy organizations and stakeholders in each county. Sanctuary for Families is the first partner in Manhattan, but Judge Kaplan says that in May she is meeting with eight other Manhattan organizations she hopes to bring on as partners in that county alone. Advocacy organizations in other boroughs will be brought on board as the program expands.
The role of these organizations is not only to help facilitate remote appearances. Their lawyers or advocates also help identify whether an order of protection is warranted and if getting one in court would present an “undue hardship” or “risk of harm” for the petitioner.
There are many reasons such hardships can arise, proponents of the program say.
“Sometimes people are in relationships where they’re not free to come and go, where they’re being followed, they’re being observed,” says Judge Kaplan, who noted that safety concerns are common.
Attanasio says a number of Sanctuary for Families clients have their whereabouts tracked electronically, so that an appearance in court would be known to their abusers, who would not be bound by an order of protection until it is served after the court appearance.
She also talked about the perceived threats that lurk inside the busy courthouse. Victims of abuse can run into other people they know, who might report back to the abuser. And unlike the Family Justice Center, which screens visitors, anybody who doesn’t set off the metal detectors, including the person against whom the order is being sought, is allowed inside of family court. The chaos of court can also be problematic for those who have suffered psychologically.
“Court’s a very traumatizing experience. It’s very triggering for many clients,” Attanasio says.
Appearing remotely provides an alternative. The way the Remote Access Temporary Order of Protection program works is that an advocate sends out an email on a secure line to the court to start the process. The person filing for the temporary order is then able to fill out and submit the application online using an e-signature. A court clerk receives the paperwork and is able to set up the hearing and schedule a remote appearance the same day, or the next day family court is open.
Then, there is a Skype session with the alleged victim making the complaint (or “petitioner” in court terms), that person’s advocate or lawyer, the judge and, if necessary, a translator. The person seeking the order tells the judge the reasons a remote appearance is necessary and the reasons for seeking an order of protection. When the usually brief hearing is finished, if the court decides to issue the temporary order, it is sent back to the petitioner electronically with the judge’s e-signature on it and also sent electronically to the sheriff’s office tasked with serving it.
Future appearances, however, must be made in person.
Attanasio says that fact was part of what dissuaded one abused client from obtaining a temporary order of protection remotely.
The woman had shown up at their offices last summer after finding out about the Family Justice Center’s counseling through the internet. She had been treated by numerous medical professionals over years of physical abuse.
Her most recent injury was a leg broken in more than once place from the weight put on her ankle when she was pushed down by her abuser. She had made it there to Family Justice Center, but it hadn’t been easy. She was on crutches and wearing a boot.
“The injury her abuser gave her made moving around extremely difficult,” says Attansio, adding “It was painful for her to get to the office.”
Attansio advised her that she could file a temporary order of protection against the man responsible without ever leaving the office. She would not have to hobble around the Family Court.
She got on a Skype session with a judge, but before it was over, she had changed her mind.
“Part of the problem was that she was fearful about the subsequent court appearance,” Attansio says.
Those involved with the Remote Access Temporary Order of Protection Program would like to make getting an order of protection even more accessible for victims of domestic violence.
Attansio advocates for a change to legislation that requires an in-person hearing for a final order of protection. She wants to see Skype appearances allowed in these cases as well. Judge Kaplan would not weigh in on that idea, but she did say she is talking to the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence to bring the Remote Access program into New York City hospitals, where Attansio’s client might have been helped even sooner, and she is working on implementing the program in police stations.
Not everyone supports making orders of protection easier to come by, however. Though he did not oppose remote access specifically, Scott Levy, Director of the Fundamental Fairness Project at The Bronx Defenders, says the idea of making orders of protection more accessible makes him “nervous” because “they are already given out so easily in the context in which we work.”
“These orders are already given almost by default and without asking if that’s what the person wants or investigating if their actually necessary,” he says.
In total, more than 300,000 orders of protection were issued statewide last year. More than 30,000 of those were temporary orders of protection issued from New York City’s family courts: 9,578 in the Bronx, 8,749 in Brooklyn, 3,394 in Manhattan, 6,464 in Queens, and 2,562 in Staten Island, according to Judge Kaplan.
Levy says that orders of protection come automatically in certain criminal cases, and in particular in domestic violence cases, sometimes to the dismay of the person being protected. At times, he says, a person might “undermine” the order meant to protect them by initiating contact with the person the order applies to and then use the order to retaliate against that person once the relationship sours.
Violating an order of protection is grounds for arrest and is usually prosecuted as criminal contempt, either as a misdemeanor or as a felony.
“While absolutely necessary, in many cases we also see situations where a false or exaggerated allegation leads to a full stayaway order and someone is rendered homeless or loses a job as a result,” Levy says.
While he recognized the need for orders of protection in some case, he said that often they are the “blunt tool” used to broker “messy” situations and are often given with too little scrutiny.
Judge Kaplan, however, says the process of appearing remotely is “no different from any other order of protection except that it’s being submitted electronically.”
“Same rules of evidence apply,” she says.