Statistics maintained by the Connecticut Judicial Department make it clear that victims of domestic violence may not be asking family courts for the protection they need. Instead the first court to act is often a criminal court following the abuser’s arrest.
According to the Connecticut Judicial Department, criminal courts in that state issued 8,478 family protective orders between July 1, 2011 and September 30, 2011. By contrast, family courts entered only 2,146 family restraining orders during the same period. Of these, only 804 were extended beyond 14 days. The rest were either allowed to expire or were rescinded after a hearing. While the numbers vary a bit from quarter to quarter, the ratios between criminal and civil orders regarding domestic safety remain fairly constant.
While statistics can’t tell the whole story, this does mean that the great majority of court orders offering protection from abuse are issued only after an arrest. Under Connecticut law, courts may issue protective orders at their discretion at the time of arraignment and before criminal responsibility has been determined. This benefits victims of abuse in the short run. The problem comes when the criminal case is disposed of and the protective order is no longer in effect. Then, unless the victim of abuse seeks protection in family court, he or she will be back at square one.
The situation is not much better in family court where the great majority of initial applications for relief from abuse are granted for 14 days pending a hearing but less than half are then continued for the full six-month period provided by law. Again, there are many reasons for this. In some cases, victims whose applications were granted without a hearing fail to appear for the mandatory follow-up hearing two weeks later. In other cases, after hearing the testimony of both parties, the judge is unconvinced that the restraining order is warranted.
Protective orders issued by criminal courts and restraining orders issued by civil courts are not a panacea, but they help. Victims of domestic violence need to be better educated about their options for getting civil restraining orders and keeping them in place as long as danger remains. What these statistics teach us is that—like it or not—the first meaningful opportunity to offer this education is often when abusers finally land in criminal court. This happens through the office of the Victim Advocate.
The bigger challenge is to reach those for whom that will have been too late. The goal must be to reach victims before their abusers are arrested, by which time irreparable damage may already have been done.