Courtroom Project Helps Victims of Domestic Violence Get Restraining Orders

A woman's stabbing death allegedly at the hands of her ex-husband renews focus on protection from domestic violence

By Patrick Healy
|  Friday, Jun 21, 2013  |  Updated 11:04 AM PDT
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The recent stabbing death of a woman in West Hills is renewing questions about what protection is available for victims of domestic violence. Patrick Healy reports from Downtown Los Angeles for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on June 20, 2013.

Patrick Healy

The recent stabbing death of a woman in West Hills is renewing questions about what protection is available for victims of domestic violence. Patrick Healy reports from Downtown Los Angeles for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on June 20, 2013.

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Like many others in her position, a domestic violence victim who came to Superior Court Department Eight Thursday had been assaulted and threatened more than once by her abuser.

But when he pushed down their daughter as she pleaded, "No, Daddy, stop!" the woman realized her personal resilience was not enough. She needed to get her daughter and herself to safety, and they needed help.

She and the daughter moved into hiding. Then she traveled to the courthouse and joined the still-growing number of domestic violence victims turning to the legal system for restraining orders against their abusers.

"It keeps going up," said Deborah Kelly, directing attorney of the Domestic Violence Project, located in Department Eight at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.

Five years ago, 6,000 victims came to the project for help in a year. Last year, the number of victims surpassed 10,000, according to Kelly.

"We see horrific injuries," said Sara Rondon, a paralegal who serves as the project coordinator.

It was Rondon who met with the woman whose daughter had tried to intercede. Bruises were visible on her face, Rondon said. Others, she said, have come to Department Eight with broken bones, deliberately inflicted cigarette burns, and knife wounds. Some of the victims would be still bleeding.

Many who find their way to Department Eight have been referred there by law enforcement or social workers.

Once a conventional courtroom, Department Eight is now known as the "ROC" – an acronym for

"Restraining Order Center." The ROC is a resource for those who seek protective orders related not only to domestic violence, but also civil and workplace harassment, and elder abuse.

The incidence of domestic violence tends to increase during periods of economic downturn, Kelly said.

She believes other factors likely have increased the percentage of victims who seek restraining orders. Those factors include efforts to streamline the process and make more assistance available to those without the resources to hire an attorney.

The packet of forms to request a domestic violence restraining order runs 35 pages.

"It's a complicated system and can be intimidating" to the unfamiliar, especially in time of crisis, said Scott Lord, an attorney who volunteers his legal services at the Domestic Violence Project, meeting with victims and preparing their applications for restraining orders.

In each case, the process can take several hours. If the application is submitted before 3:30 p.m., the court pledges it will be reviewed by a judicial officer and a decision will be made before day's end.

"In most cases, it's granted," Kelly said.

Under the law, a temporary restraining order can be issued without any input from the alleged abuser. A court date is set to give the subject of a temporary order a chance to challenge it before it is made permanent.

Launched 27 years ago, the Domestic Violence Project is a collaboration between the Superior Court and the Los Angeles County Bar Association. For domestic violence restraining orders, the court waives the filing fee.

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department serves most orders. Cases including a "move out" order are served by the local law enforcement agency for the area where the home is located.

In most cases, restraining orders are effective in deterring further abuse, according to a national study by the American Bar Association, which polled victims who had obtained orders. Some 86 percent said the abuse decreased or ceased, the study found.

But no one should be deluded that the order itself provides protection.

Kelly noted with sadness that a restraining order did not help Michelle Kane, the West Hills wife and mother of two who was slain in a brutal knife attack on June 15. Now charged with murder is her estranged husband Michael Kane, who had been served in April with a temporary restraining order. She had left her home and gone into hiding at a friend's house before she was killed.

Shelters for abuse victims provide a rarely breeched level of protection, but also require major sacrifices by victims, who must cut off virtually all connection to their existing lives so as not to leave a trail that can be followed by the abuser.

That means leaving jobs and even pulling children out of school.

"It's a huge decision to go into a shelter," Kelly said.

But she encourages victims to take that step, "if there's any doubt."

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