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Michelle Cruz: Restraining Order Rules Unfair To Abuse Victims

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Domestic violence has plagued our communities for decades. Despite attempts to make the masses more aware, and to provide safety to victims and their families, victims continued to struggle to secure a safe exit from abusive relationships. Some of the obstacles are obvious, such as financial barriers. Others are less obvious and embedded in a legal system that is supposed to offer help to the victim. Sadly, one such area is the Connecticut restraining order process.

For those who are unaware, the restraining order process is twofold. In the most general terms, the first step is for the complainant (the victim) to request a temporary order, ex parte, from the court that has jurisdiction. The court can grant the temporary order and schedule a hearing approximately 10 days to two weeks later. The court can also deny the temporary order but schedule a hearing within the same time frame to determine if a permanent order is needed.

If the order isn't flat-out denied, the next step is the order must be served upon the respondent (the alleged "abusive" person). After it is served, there is a hearing at which the complainant and respondent present evidence to support their position. The court, based on the evidence, either grants or denies the extension of the order.

A key component to obtaining a restraining order is ensuring the service of the order to the respondent. This not only notifies the respondent of the temporary order or application, but it is essential in allowing the complainant to move forward in his or her quest for safety. You could say the service of the order is the glue that keeps the system moving forward. Failure to complete service stops the process altogether.

In many states, once the complainant successfully obtains a temporary order, a court clerk forwards it to the police who serve the order to the respondent. Not in Connecticut. In Connecticut, the whole service process rests on the shoulders of the complainant. The alleged victim must not only find the courage to ask the court for protection from an abusive partner, but she or he must take the reins and complete the service of the order.

The complainant must comb through a laundry list of state marshals and, after identifying a marshal who covers the respondent's geographic area, contact the individual marshal, arrange for service, and then make sure the proof of service is returned to the court within the allotted time. All the while the complainant must stay vigilant as to possible threats of harm by the abusive partner.

If the order is not served on time, the process must begin all over. That means the complainant must return to the court, apply for a new order, find a marshal, and pray the order is served appropriately this time. For many abuse victims, it's difficult enough to walk into a courthouse to begin with; it's often the culmination of a decision that has taken years or decades to make. Encountering this complicated process for service can be just enough of a stressor to send the victim back home and into the wrath of a lethal abuser.

Furthermore, there have been complaints over the years that some marshals won't serve these types of orders, as they must chase down the state for reimbursement. Other domestic violence victims have complained of marshals who will attempt service only one time. If the respondent isn't home, the marshal will not return.

Remember, these orders allow the abused partner to seek law enforcement's assistance to keep a dangerous offender away; an arrest for violation of the order carries with it a felony and possible jail time. However, if the service isn't completed, the safety that accompanies the restraining order remains out of reach.

So why it is the complainant/victim's responsibility to ensure service? In states where the clerk sends the order to police for service, there are many positive benefits. First, police have access to vital information, such as a gun registry and criminal history, which serves to alert officers to the potential dangers of serving the order. Further, if police officers serve the order, they can seize firearms covered under the order right at the time of service. Also, the police are brought into contact with the respondent, putting this individual on the police's radar if there are future problems.

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