When a victim of domestic violence decides to step away from her abuser, it is a bold move.
After filing a detailed petition for an order of protection, she must wait to appear before a family court judge. So much time is spent preparing, and waiting, that the risk of the abuser discovering her plans is a real threat.
Now, victims can fill out the necessary paperwork to get a restraining order in a safe, private location, thanks to a new program called the “Domestic Violence Advocate Assisted Petition Program,” or the “E-Petition.” The program, which is being piloted in Suffolk County by The Retreat and Brighter Tomorrows, allows victims and their advocates the time and space necessary to get the paperwork completed and sent in.
“The new process has already cut paper processing and court waiting times for some domestic violence victims from over two hours to under 15 minutes,” said Cristina Banados, the advocacy director at The Retreat, which like Brighter Tomorrows is a nonprofit organization that offers services to victims of domestic violence. “Now, a client can be done with everything within three to four hours total, rather than spending a whole day in court.”
Typically, victims and their advocates from either The Retreat or Brighter Tomorrows manually fill out documents to hand to the court clerk. The documents can take a while to fill out because the victim must go into detail about what happened that made her want an order of protection. In many cases, when the documents are filled out at the courthouse, victims are reluctant to fully disclose what happened, which could compromise their request.
“Everybody can hear what the person next to them is saying,” said Dawn Brown, the executive director of Brighter Tomorrows. “They’ll want to be brief. They are not likely to disclose intimate details of the incident.” Ms. Banados said victims can be embarrassed to recount an incident or may be afraid to relive it.
Additionally, if the abuser knows the victim is going to file for an order of protection, “nobody is going to stop them from standing in the room,” Ms. Brown said. “Just having them show up is enough to have the victim stand up, turn around and walk out the door.”
Now, victims can show up at The Retreat or Brighter Tomorrows, either at the organizations’ shelters or at their offices near the Central Islip and Riverhead family courts. There they can fill out a petition and get time with a judge all within a matter of hours. The data can be entered into the web-based system, which is integrated with the family court’s case management system, on any computer.
According to Ms. Banados, the organizations are expediting the process not only for the victims, but also for the courts. She said one clerk typically processes the handwritten petitions, digitizing them and getting them to the judge, which used to make petitioning a more time-consuming process. Now The Retreat and Brighter Tomorrows are doing that step for the courts, Ms. Banados said.
She said that while the number of people The Retreat helps by filing e-petitions hasn’t increased, the process is sped up significantly, especially for those who are already in the system. New petitioners typically take five to six hours filling out the required documents, she said.
The two organizations have been offering this service since December, and both hope that the pilot program turns into something permanent as it has in other counties.
According to Ms. Banados, the initiative came down from New York State, started in New York City and then went to Nassau County, where it worked out well. The state then asked Suffolk County’s family court systems to collaborate with domestic violence service organizations that they typically work with to begin the pilot program.
“This makes us feel like we’re better serving our clients who say, ‘I can’t wait for a judge to see me, I have to pick up my kids from school,’ and have to come back the next day to spend another night in the same situation or spend their lunch time to pick up their kids early from school,” she said. “Kids get exposed to family court that way. Hopefully, we can help prevent some of that.”