While the rest of the country celebrates the arrival of spring with baseball season openers, picnics and cherry blossom festivals, for Sacramento political types the warmer days and budding foliage herald a different annual rite: budget season in California. All this month and into May, legislative budget subcommittees are meeting to determine what the state can afford to fund, and which services will need to be scaled back or eliminated.
The reduction of court services statewide is an area of budget austerity that has caused a lot of concern. When local court branches reduce their hours and services, or in some cases close entirely, residents experience inconveniences both minor (longer lines) and major (trial delays). But for California's domestic violence victims, the reduction of court services is more than a mere inconvenience. The ability to promptly file a protective order or a temporary restraining order can mean the difference between sleeping safely at night and being in serious danger.
When victims go to court to file restraining orders, they're counting on courts to make sure that the orders are immediately enforceable. The system is organized for maximum efficiency; restraining orders are filed ex-parte, meaning the defendant doesn't have to be notified ahead of time, and in the past it was customary for courts to attempt to process TROs the same day they were filed. The orders are fast-tracked because courts recognize that leaving abusive relationships is dangerous sometimes more dangerous than staying in them.
Unless you work in the domestic violence field, you may not realize that leaving a batterer can be more hazardous in the short term than just staying put. Statistics show that in the weeks immediately after moving out or filing for separation or divorce, victims are at an increased risk of being stalked, assaulted or killed. That's why filing TROs is often the first thing victims do as they begin the difficult process of ending a violent relationship.
Restraining orders are the foundation of the legal documentation victims must establish to ensure their cases will be fairly adjudicated in matters ranging from housing to employment to child custody. Restraining orders also play a role in helping victims and their children relocate to safer living situations.
California law allows domestic violence victims to break leases with minimal penalties if they're able to prove they've been abused. Under current law, the only documents accepted for early lease termination are restraining orders or police reports. When families are forced to move suddenly for safety reasons, restraining orders are crucial in ensuring they can get themselves out of danger without getting into a financial hole in the process.
Court closures and service reductions mean that in many communities, residents can't access restraining orders and their legal protections as quickly as they need to. The Richmond Courthouse in Contra Costa County doesn't accept TRO filings anymore because it no longer has the staff to process them in a timely manner. Abuse victims in Richmond have to travel to Martinez to file, which takes an hour each way if you're using public transportation.
Residents of San Bernardino County, which plans to close three courthouses Wednesday, will have an even harder time seeing justice done. When the Big Bear Courthouse closes, abuse victims will have to travel more than 100 miles round-trip to Victorville, the closest city court branch that deals with family law cases. There's no public transportation between Big Bear and Victorville, so victims without cars, many of whom are already struggling financially, will have to find their own way down the mountain. In May the trip will be a smooth one but by next winter, if San Bernardino is still without adequate court services, victims will face a perilous journey.
Those are just a few examples of the problems people filing restraining orders must deal with because of our state government's inability to fully fund its judicial branch. Leaving an abusive relationship is frightening and difficult under the best of circumstances. The last thing our justice system should be doing is creating additional barriers to safety in the lives of these vulnerable citizens. Let's hope that in this year's budget season, lawmakers facing hard choices will take a moment to consider the needs of domestic violence victims.
Camille Hayes, a Sacramento writer, is a domestic violence advocate for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. The views expressed here do not represent those of the partnership or its member agencies. Read her blog, Lady Troubles, about politics and women's issues at www.ladytroubles.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.