As experts warn of a risk of increased domestic violence rates during the pandemic, attorneys and advocates in New Orleans say that survivors of domestic violence, abuse, and stalking have faced new barriers to protection caused by miscommunications within the court system.
Hannah Groedel, an attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services — a group that provides free legal aid to low-income people — told The Lens that during Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order, her clients weren’t receiving copies of their protective orders, and those orders weren’t available in a statewide database relied upon by law enforcement.
“It used to just be rote procedure,” she said. “You would go to the courthouse, file a petition, it would automatically get scanned in and sent to the registry, and law enforcement could pull it up and enforce it.”
But according to Groedel and other advocates, COVID-19 has created gaps in the administration of that “rote procedure.” Those gaps have created uncertainty for survivors of domestic violence.
“So many systems of communication broke down during COVID that it was impossible to get a clear answer,” agreed Eva Lessinger, the director of programs at the Family Justice Center, which partners with the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office and law enforcement agencies to advocate for domestic violence survivors.
The criminal stay away order
In mid-March, a few days after Edwards first declared a public health emergency and imposed social distancing measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus, one New Orleans woman’s husband allegedly broke her bedroom door off its hinges and attacked her.
“He kicked the door off its hinges and put his hands around my neck,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified by name out of concern for her privacy, in an interview late last month..
“I told the doctors, I don’t know what happened next.”
He was arrested and charged with domestic abuse battery, a misdemeanor, but released on bail the following day. A judge issued a protective order at his bail hearing, Groedel told The Lens.
There are two parallel processes for acquiring a protective order in Orleans Parish. The first, which should have applied in this case, is a criminal stay-away order, issued by a court when a defendant is indicted or charged. If the defendant is charged with a violent crime against a family member, household member, or romantic partner and the court determines the defendant is dangerous to the victim, the court is required to issue a stay-away order.
Even if those standards aren’t met, the prosecutor or victim can request an order. Once the order is issued, the defendant is not allowed to contact the victim or be in close physical proximity, and the defendant is not allowed to possess a firearm, though as The Lens and The Trace recently reported, New Orleans judges frequently fail to order people under protective orders to relinquish their guns.
So in early May, when the woman’s husband called her on her cell phone, she said she called a police non-emergency number. She said that she was told that there was no record of her protective order.
“Nobody said, ‘Bring me proof, let me see where he called you, let me see that he violated his stay away order,’ ” she said.
Although the New Orleans Police Department could not verify the content of the May call, her description of the experience appears to match department policy, which requires both a record of the order and proof that it has been served to its subject for enforcement.
Groedel, who represents the woman, said that not only was there no order recorded in the statewide database — the Louisiana Protective Order Registry (LPOR), maintained by the Louisiana Supreme Court — she’s unable to find a record of an order in her husband’s court records.
The woman said that her husband has access to guns, and that he’s talked to her about killing people before. (One study suggested that survivors of strangulation are seven times more likely to be killed by an abusive partner than those who are subject to abuse but not strangled.) In the weeks since that first call, she’s been receiving calls from a blocked number, which she suspects he’s making.
Now, she feels vulnerable, unsure if the police will be able to protect her in the future.
“I understand why so many women die, because the justice system don’t do anything. My fear is being another statistic.”
She’s not alone. Ozella Randolph, whose husband was arrested after a fight and shooting on Mardi Gras, said that she learned about her stay away order from a detective who came to collect evidence for her husband’s case.
After that, she said, she checked his case on the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office’s criminal court minutes database, which showed he had signed a stay-away order in late February, about two weeks before the state began shutting down.
But she hasn’t received her own copy of the order, and it wasn’t in the registry.
“My husband has been locked up for four months, and I still haven’t received nothing at all,” she said. While her husband is still in jail waiting for an arraignment, she said that it’ll make her feel protected from his family, who she said have been calling her since the arrest.
She’s contacted the DA for more information, but after one conversation with the DA’s office, “nobody ever called me back.”
According to Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office spokesman Ken Daley, the court itself is responsible for making sure that paperwork is filed correctly.
“It is the judge or commissioner who has the duty of signing a protective order. The protective order is sent by the clerk in that court section to the Louisiana Supreme Court’s protective order registry,” Daley said. “The Supreme Court registry would have any and all copies of protective orders sent to them by the court’s clerk. The District Attorney’s office does not produce nor send to the Supreme Court any protective orders.”
However, Lessinger said that victim counselors working for the DA’s office have historically played a role in ensuring that victims get copies of protective orders.
“I think the clerk’s office is supposed to mail it, but in reality, we always went to the DA advocates if we needed copies of the orders,” Lessinger said.
On May 8, the DA’s office furloughed 56 employees, including the two victims’ counselors who worked at the Family Justice Center. In total, the DA’s office furloughed eight of its 15 counselors. However, said Daley, “providing copies of court orders has never been part of their duties.”
The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court and Clerk of Court’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Filing a civil petition
There’s another option for victims of domestic abuse: a civil protective order from Civil District Court.
The first step in getting a civil protective order involves filing a petition. In normal circumstances, this process would be again, “rote procedure.” The petitioner would get the document notarized, either with an advocate, at a notary public, or at the courthouse, and then file at the courthouse. Then, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office would serve the subject of the order with a copy.
But with notary publics closed, and social distancing in place, the notarization requirement introduced additional confusion.
“The whole point of one person without an attorney being able to go to court and file for protection is that they shouldn’t need anyone else’s [help] to do it,” Groedel said.
SLLS had, for a month and a half, a workaround to in-person notarization, and the Family Justice Center organized volunteer notary services. Gov. John Bel Edwards issued an order on March 26 that created a framework for remote notaries. SLLS began notarizing protective order petitions using a combination of Zoom meetings and encrypted software, which allowed them to file petitions on their clients’ behalf. Provisions for remote notarizations were renewed in a subsequent order on April 2.
But those orders expired at the end of April, and Edwards’ phase one reopening order didn’t explicitly allow remote notarization. Because of that, SLLS is no longer remotely notarizing petitions. They don’t want the validity their clients’ orders called into question.
When asked for comment early last week, Edwards spokesperson Christina Stephens said an “order will be issued on Thursday,” but did not respond to follow up questions regarding the contents of the order. (The governor’s latest order — bringing the state into the second phase of reopening — went into effect on Friday. It didn’t address remote notarization, and the governor’s office did not respond to follow-up requests for comment.)
According to Lessinger, “cracks existed pre-COVID,” that made it challenging for domestic violence survivors to feel ownership over their safety.
“I think highlighting the barriers at all the levels is really important, she said. “Even just something as simple as creating an e-filing system for folks to be able to electronically file orders would have allowed more access to the civil court during this time.”
The woman who spoke to The Lens ended up filing for a civil protective order after the courts reopened. But even being granted a civil order hasn’t been a guarantee.
Both civil and criminal processes rely on the respective clerk of court’s office to send the order to the person under protection, and to enter the order into the Louisiana Protective Order Registry. In civil cases, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office also needs to serve the defendant with a copy of the order. Those administrative steps are critical for the safety of survivors.
“If [a protective order] is not given to the victim and it’s not scanned into the registry, there’s no way for law enforcement to know that it exists,” Groedel said.
Even if a petition has been notarized, filed, and signed by a judge, the protective order paperwork still needs to be entered into the LPOR. That registry is supposed to be the one-stop resource for law enforcement responding to protective order violations.
LPOR policy advises that as long as a protected party has a physical copy of an order signed by a judge, it should be treated as valid. And the registry has staff on call at all times to field questions from law enforcement who are unable to find a copy of a protective order in the registry.
“The most important part of this process is having an order placed in LPOR. Nearly everything follows from that,” said NOPD spokesperson Gary Scheets. “Without a record of service, a protection order is not yet valid as the defendant doesn’t know it exists or what the order prohibits. An officer must attempt to verify an order was served … even if the petitioner is in possession of the order and state it was served. Without confirmation of service, or it being in LOPR, it is very difficult to verify the person is in violation.” (He did note that criminal orders can be verified from court records, as the defendant is served in court.)
According to Louisiana law, the court clerk’s offices are responsible for scanning in protective orders “no later than the end of the next business day” after filing. But for the past two months, Groedel said, civil protective orders from Orleans Parish have not been making it into the registry. She’s worked on “between five and ten” cases over the pandemic, both civil and criminal, in which she’s contacted LPOR staff who have been unable to find an order.
“We’ve been working really close with the civil court to try to get on the same page pretty much since the day that they closed in March,” Lessinger said. “With the clerk of court, and several of the judges, and as a community of advocates for survivors, we’ve been constantly problem solving, we did see that exact issue [with LPOR] come up.”
“I can’t say how many didn’t make it [into LPOR],” she continued. “But we had to be pretty persistent in the beginning to ensure that everyone was crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s because a lot of things just fell through the cracks.”
The Orleans Parish Civil District Court was open for emergencies, including temporary restraining order hearings, said Bernadette D’Souza, one of the court’s two dedicated family court judges.
“When a [temporary restraining order] had to be signed, I got a phone call from the clerk’s office saying that there was a victim of domestic abuse with the application to file a petition. They come down, they open the doors, they take the petition,” and D’Souza went to sign it, she said. “So the order was immediately effective.”
The clerk’s office was filing those petitions during the stay at home order, according to Civil District Court Clerk Chelsey Richard Napoleon’s chief deputy, Alex Irvin.
“Our process has stayed the same pre-COVID, and currently. We file the orders, we scan them, and we fax them to LPOR.”
She said she was not aware of situations where an order hadn’t been sent to LPOR.
When asked why documents weren’t available in LPOR, Irvin said, “We would not know that information. We don’t know why.” Later, she said “I don’t know what LPOR’s timeframe is. I would not know when they update their information.”
Trina Vincent, a public information officer with the Louisiana Supreme Court, told The Lens that the office has found itself short-staffed during the pandemic.
“In-office staffing and subsequent entry of Orders into the system has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she wrote in an email. But, she added, some local courts were also behind in submitting orders to the state registry. “LPOR has also recently begun to receive Orders issued by courts but not previously sent to LPOR.”
She did not specify how many of those new orders came from Orleans Parish.
That matches Groedel’s experience—she said that her clients’ civil protective orders have begun to appear on LPOR about a week after reopening.
But that weeks-long gap put people in harm’s way, and it might have undermined trust in the system, she said.
“If they are told, by an officer, after being terrified and going to court and filing against an abuser that their order can’t be enforced, the system has really broken down,” Groedel said in a text last week. “It can have a chilling effect on their willingness to seek help or protection, reinforcing the belief that the system is useless to them, doesn’t care about them, [and] can’t help them, no matter what they do.
Even orders filed before the pandemic have faced barriers to enforcement based on similar paperwork delays.
When a petitioner files for a civil protective order, a judge grants them a temporary restraining order, and then sets a hearing date for a permanent protective order, which lasts between six and 18 months. Temporary restraining orders expire after ten days, although they’re regularly extended. However, both the Orleans Parish Civil District Court and Criminal District Court extended all protective orders that would have expired during the stay-at-home period. The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court reopening order, issued on May 26, extended all criminal stay away orders set to expire between March 12 and June 12 until July 1. An order from the Civil District Court in April extended civil protective orders until May 22, after which it began setting hearings and extending on a case-by-case basis.
But, Groedel said, it isn’t clear who’s responsible for keeping track of the extensions. In the end, this can mean that law enforcement isn’t sure if an order is expired or extended. She said she knows of at least one case in which an order wasn’t enforced because it appeared expired, although she hasn’t represented any.
“Law enforcement relies on the registry. The registry relies on the clerk’s office to scan [the protective order] in and send it in. The clerk’s office historically has relied on either petitioners or attorneys to fight to fill out and file that paperwork. But when these [court] orders say, ‘OK, everything’s automatically extended,’ the question is: whose burden is it?”
“The courts never really informed NOPD about the extension of the orders,” Lessinger said. “I had to tell them that. If they had some system, it didn’t make it to the police officers that it needed to get to. I don’t know if that’s on the courts, or if that’s on LPOR. I’m not even sure whose responsibility that is. But it certainly shouldn’t be the advocacy community.”
“The court puts out these formal memos from the chief judge and the clerk of court, but if nobody’s taking the time to actually do outreach, it gets lost in translation,” she said.
At this point, said Lessinger, NOPD’s understanding of the extension is “fairly good” at the level of the Domestic Violence Unit. But “they’re not the ones answering all those calls for violations.”
According to Irvin, with the Civil Clerk of Court’s office, “The court would have to contact LPOR regarding a change to that order.”
But D’Souza said that she personally signed extensions for protective orders that expired during the pandemic — meaning that extensive outreach shouldn’t have been necessary, because LPOR should have showed the extended expiration dates in the first place. “If the order was signed and then there was a delay in transmitting that order,” she said, “that could be problematic if the police are looking into the registry.”
Officials from the New Orleans Police Department did not respond to a request for comment about problems with protective order extensions.
“I imagine this is a funding issue,” Groedel said. “And I sympathize with that. It’s not these individual actors that are like bad apples or anything, but we’ve got to still talk about how this vastly underfunded system affects really vulnerable people in our community. People who don’t have access to internet, or don’t have legal literacy, or who are holed up in their house, fearing for their lives.”
The woman who was allegedly attacked in March was also able to get a copy of her criminal stay away order by going to the municipal courthouse in person. (Her husband’s case is currently in New Orleans municipal court.)
Once she had a copy, she filed a police report, and her husband was arrested for violating the order. He was released the next day on a $200 bond. Now, she says, she doesn’t have any confidence that the order will protect her. “I’ve had enough, I’ve had enough with this system. There is nothing I can do. My hands are tied behind my back.”
Randolph, whose husband is due to be arraigned, said that she plans to move away from Louisiana.
“They don’t do what they tell you they’re going to do, until something happens. A lot of people die from it.”