Wasteful restraining orders clog Rock County courts

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Ted Sullivan
Sunday, July 12, 2009
— Three women had hearings in Rock County Court recently to get restraining orders, but none was granted.

One woman asked the court to dismiss her case, claiming she and her husband plan to get counseling.

A second woman had no evidence her ex-husband abused her, prompting the defense attorney to call her case “frivolous.” Her petition was denied for the third time.

The third woman didn’t show up.

The three cases illustrate a larger trend in Rock County. A Gazette analysis of court data indicates nearly 70 percent of requests for restraining orders in 2008 were quashed because petitioners failed to appear in court, asked for their case to be dismissed or couldn’t prove they were in danger.

“What has happened is people have discovered this statute, and it’s being grossly abused,” Judge James Welker said. “All of those that get dismissed are a waste of time.”

Serving the orders, holding court hearings and paying court officials cost thousands of dollars a year, Welker said.

Kerri Parker, executive director of YWCA Rock County, agreed that some requests for restraining orders are without merit, but she said many people need restraining orders and protection under the law.

Two-thirds of Janesville's homicides stem from domestic violence, including the fatal shooting in the Fourth Ward neighborhood in April, police said.

“This is how we stop homicides, by people getting the protection they need when they need it,” Parker said. “You never know which incident will be the one that will give the woman the strength to leave the relationship.”

‘I’m going to show you’

A person must prove he or she is in imminent danger of physical harm to get a restraining order.

Petitioners file an application with the court. If approved, a judge schedules a hearing within 14 days.

The sheriff’s office must serve the order to the respondent, and the parties are notified of the court hearing. Petitioners can get restraining orders for up to four years if they prove their cases at hearings.

The law offers a measure of protection to legitimate victims, but many are using the court for leverage in their relationships, Welker said.

“What happens these days is someone in a family relationship gets in a spat of some sort, and one family member goes, ‘Well, I’m going to show you,’” the judge said.

In such cases, people often change their minds and later want the cases dismissed or don’t appear in court, Welker said.

“So now, they really don’t care because this was a spat, and this was just one more weapon in the arsenal between people who spat,” he said.

About two months of court time was wasted in 2008 to have judges, court commissioners or staff members work on restraining orders that went nowhere, Welker said.

And that doesn’t include the time and money sheriff’s deputies spent finding and serving respondents with orders, he said.

“You’re talking about a lot of money,” Welker said. “It’s a very, very expensive operation.”

Reasons to dismiss

When people follow through, most requests for restraining orders are granted, said Barbara McCrory, a family court commissioner who oversees the hearings.

People who want their cases dismissed usually have children in their relationship, she said.

Parents have a hard time discussing their children or sharing custody with restraining orders in place, McCrory said.

People sometimes see positive changes in their partners after their cases are filed, she said.

Court officials question people to ensure they’re no longer in danger before dismissing a case, McCrory said.

“There are some cases where they come in and say, ‘Maybe I exaggerated a little bit,’” she said. “But that is very rare.”

If people skip their court hearings, no one follows up with them, she said. It is unknown why they don’t appear.

Help for victims

The YWCA assists 40 percent of people seeking restraining orders, Parker said.

Among those, 80 to 90 percent are granted, she said.

The YWCA is able to reduce the number of invalid requests with consultations up front, Parker said.

People who appear in court with YWCA advocates also are treated with more credibility, she said.

Even among people who file alone, however, restraining orders are an important step in protecting victims, Parker said.

“In some ways, it’s a level of security for the petitioner,” Parker said.

When court officials grant petitions, they are validating a victim’s fears, she said. They also are assuring victims there will be consequences if the orders are violated.

People who want their cases dismissed could be getting manipulated, Parker said.

Domestic violence runs in cycles, she said, and a honeymoon period often follows an abusive period.

Although it’s frustrating to have so many cases dismissed, it’s important the court hears the needs of victims, Parker said.

People should be given the opportunity to stand up to their abusers, even if they change their minds, she said.

Solving the problem

The court could reduce the number of dismissed cases, officials said.

People could be required to have a consultation before filing for restraining orders, Welker said.

They could be informed whether court is the appropriate place to solve their problems, he said.

If court is not the right place, people could be sent to the YWCA, marriage counseling or other places, Welker said.

“Not every problem in the world gets solved in the courts,” he said. “There are other social agencies.”

The court also could order people to pay costs for filing a frivolous case, Welker said.

The problem with ordering fees, however, is the court doesn’t want to discourage victims from applying, McCrory said.

“The law is never perfect, especially with human behavior,” she said.

Last updated: 10:57 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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