Before the pandemic spread, getting a domestic violence restraining order was an onerous process in Wayne County, Michigan, which includes Detroit, Dearborn, and several smaller cities. Obtaining one required going in person to the court building to complete several pieces of paperwork, waiting around to see if a petition was granted, and then finding out when a hearing would take place. The whole process could take all day. “It can be incredibly intimidating to file a personal protection order,” said Jeni Hooper, program coordinator of the community response team at First Step, an advocacy group in Detroit for survivors of domestic violence.
The coronavirus has required court systems to adapt — and at a time when experts warn that social isolation, economic uncertainty, and a historic wave of gun-buying are driving up domestic abuse. Calls to the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence were up 102 percent in March and the first half of April, compared to the same period last year.
In Wayne County, officials accelerated plans to digitize the process for a personal protection order (PPO) as it is called locally. On April 17, three days before its courthouses closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Wayne County Circuit Court launched a digital portal through which people can request orders remotely. As part of the process, a petitioner can ask a judge to prohibit the respondent from purchasing or possessing a firearm. The majority of states lack an automatic gun prohibition with an temporary pre-hearing order, even though experts warn that a failure to disarm abusers when an order is served exacerbates the risks for victims.
Widespread economic strain, a surge in firearm sales, and social distancing could have grave consequences for victims of intimate partner abuse, experts warn.
Kathleen McCarthy, the presiding judge in the family division of Wayne County Circuit Court who spearheaded the e-filing program, said that when she was deciding whether to temporarily close the courthouse last month, her biggest concern was how domestic violence survivors would be able to get restraining orders. Growing up in a household with domestic violence had made her particularly attuned to the risks, she added.
The pandemic “turned everything on its head and forced everyone to learn and to acquire the technology to do these things in a more up-to-date fashion,” McCarthy said.
In 2018, Wayne County had the highest rate of reported domestic violence incidents by county in Michigan, according to a Trace analysis of the most recent available crime statistics from the Michigan State Police and population data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
When a state stay-at-home order started on March 24, officials and advocates in Michigan feared the problem would get worse. “A lot of times people need to get these personal protection orders and the person they need to get it against is still somewhere around them,” said Shelly Drain, an assistant prosecuting attorney in Wayne County.
“The pandemic puts survivors at a much more increased risk because they can be isolated with their abuser,” added Hooper.
In April, the county registered a slight decline in reported incidents of domestic violence compared to the last year, according to an analysis of county data by the Detroit Free Press. But local crisis centers have reported an increase in calls about domestic violence in the same period compared to last year, a possible sign of underreporting.
McCarthy says the e-filing system has been processing an average of 17 PPO applications per day, about the same volume that came through the old system in March. That’s down from a pre-pandemic average of about 25 per day, she said.
Research shows that when an abuser has access to a gun, the risk of homicide becomes five times more likely. Federal law bars convicted abusers and those subject to domestic violence protective orders from owning guns. But the law refers to permanent orders of protection that have been handed down by a judge, not orders that are served prior to a hearing. Twenty-one states either bar gun possession for people subject to a PPO before a hearing is held, or allow a judge to authorize a gun prohibition. Michigan falls into the latter category. Most of the time, Drain said, judges in Wayne County order a gun prohibition even if a petitioner hasn’t asked for it. McCarthy added that all sitting judges in her jurisdiction must attend domestic violence training, where “it’s clearly taught that removing guns from the household is the number one way, if you can, to prevent a fatality.”
The e-filing system makes it much easier for petitioners, whether in a pandemic or not, said Hooper, whose group is one of several domestic violence organizations available to help petitioners complete the process. They can file on behalf of a domestic violence survivor if that person is unable to access the forms themself. The court website also makes it easier for petitioners to find court-approved process servers or send documents by certified mail.
Georgea Cole, an advocate for victims with the Americorps Urban Safety Domestic Violence Program at Wayne State University, spends the vast majority of her time helping domestic violence survivors file for PPOs, including through the new system.
Normally, she works out of police stations throughout Detroit, speaking with people who are referred by an officer or via a domestic violence hotline. She says working from home has hindered her ability to connect with survivors. “You can’t get that kind of refuge virtually,” she said.
But for other survivors who are unable to get to a physical place of safe harbor, the online filing system offers potentially life-saving access — even without the pandemic or state of emergency. Cole said she thinks that the addition of online filing after the state reopens can allow for the greatest access possible for survivors whose circumstances restrict different resources.
“We see both of the methods work,” Cole said. “But everything is not for everybody.”
Wayne County is not the first place to add an e-filing system for personal protection orders. Macomb County in Michigan has had such a system in place since 2018. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, three states — Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin — allowed people to electronically file restraining order petitions directly to the court without having to visit a courthouse or meet with a legal advocate, according to an analysis of data from the National Center for State Courts. Since the pandemic began, others like Utah have also allowed temporary restraining order petitions to be emailed directly to the court.
But online systems remain unusual. And that largely comes down to funding, said Rachel Teicher, director of intimate partner violence intervention at the National Network For Safe Communities. “It costs money to set up these systems and adopt them and make sure they’re secure and that the process works,” said Teicher. But she said the investment is worth it. “It saves victims a lot of time and stress.”
Wayne County officials hope that other jurisdictions might follow their lead. Said Drain, “It can really be rolled out everywhere.”