The grainy black-and-white video of professional football player Ray Rice punching his now-wife sparked national outrage and, said one Indiana prosecutor, sent a powerful message to other victims of domestic violence.
Watching the video, some Hoosiers who are being abused likely realized that violence is not something they deserve or have to endure, said St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter. He pointed to an uptick in protective order filings in his county following the Rice incident as evidence supporting his hypothesis.
In addition to changing attitudes of victims, Cotter also believes the increase in protective orders filed in St. Joseph County reflects society moving away from the old philosophy that what happens in a family is that family’s business and instead becoming less tolerant of spousal abuse and sexual assault.
“I don’t see more violence,” he said. “(I) just see victims being more clear on what the law can do for people.”
What Cotter is seeing in South Bend appears to be happening across the entire state. The 2013 Indiana Judicial Year in Review, released in December 2014, shows that during a nine-year period, protective order filings in the state grew by 25 percent. This category counts only the new petitions for protective orders that are not part of an ongoing process such as a divorce.
Family law attorneys echoed Cotter’s interpretation of the increase. The statistics do not indicate that Indiana residents are experiencing more violence but, the attorneys said, victims are more confident help is available.
By and large, the protective orders do work and do keep victims safe, attorneys said, but they did acknowledged these orders cannot stop a bullet. However, the court filings do carry criminal penalties, so abusers are keeping their distance from their victims because they know if the civil protective order is violated they could go to jail.
Kerry Hyatt Blomquist, legal director for the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, believes a revision of the state law made protective orders more of a remedy against abuse and threats. In 2001, the Legislature focused the law to concentrate on victims of domestic or family violence, sexual assault and stalking.
The statute, Indiana Code 34-26-5, is broadly written, Blomquist said, so a victim can get an ex parte protective order even without having a police report or medical claim documenting the abuse. For individuals facing a credible threat, “a protective order is a viable option for being left alone,” she said.
According to the statistics collected by the Indiana Supreme Court Division of State Court Administration, protective order filings have risen in the state from 27,004 in 2004 to 33,755 in 2013. Filings actually peaked in 2010 at 36,534. Overall, filings have grown 25 percent, but between 2004 and 2008, the years prior to the Great Recession, filings soared 29 percent. During the economic downturn, 2009 to 2013, filings dropped 8 percent.
The law does provide some economic relief, Blomquist noted. In granting the order, the court may also specify arrangements for parenting time or compel the respondent to pay for things like the mortgage, the repair of damaged property and medical expenses.
Providing financial support can encourage more victims to leave their abuser. Solo practitioner Jerome Ezell has seen victims withdraw a petition for a protective order because they worry about their finances or how they will care for their children without the help from the abuser.
Ezell supports amending the statute to give judges more discretion in granting withdrawals of protective orders. Under current law, the courts have no authority to question why the order is being dropped and cannot determine if the victim is being intimidated or coerced in some way. The Kouts, Indiana, attorney would like to see the Indiana General Assembly enable judges to make sure the withdrawal is voluntary.
In St. Joseph County, Cotter said the courts, prosecutor’s office and law enforcement have become educated about domestic violence and are talking to each other about the problem. He recalled that when he started in the prosecutor’s office, police officers assumed the victim would eventually drop the charges so they were reluctant to arrest anyone who violated a protective order.
Since then the attitude has changed, and those who disregard the order to stay away will be penalized, which has bolstered victims’ confidence in protective orders. Police cannot stop another attack, Cotter said, but they can hold the abuser accountable.
Alan Bouwkamp, partner at Newton Becker Bouwkamp Pendoski P.C., has witnessed a similar destigmatizing of this kind of violence and a shift from blaming the victim.
He recalled an incident from 20 years ago involving a man who attacked his girlfriend. The man’s brother underscored a level of tolerance for some domestic violence back then when he conceded, “Yeah, he probably beat her more than he should have.”
Even with the increased awareness, victims still have to come to the realization that they do not have to live with the abuse. They also then have to endure the trauma that can come from a court hearing on a protective order, Bouwkamp said. Still, he continued, the system works because the victim is protected and the respondent gets his or her day in court. All sides have the opportunity to be heard.
Having represented respondents in court, Ezell said they usually say the incident did not happen the way the victim says it did. However, they seldom have proof to support their account and, often, many do not appear for the hearing, believing the judge will rule against them anyway.
Wanzer Edwards P.C. partner Elisabeth Edwards has noticed similar reactions from respondents but has seen different outcomes in court. Like Ezell, Edwards said her clients typically acknowledge the victim’s account has some truth but they maintain that is not the whole story. As a result, some judges have dismissed the order while other times, judges have entered a permanent protective order.
“At least in my practice, the (protective order filings) that truly don’t have any merit behind them, the judges are able to spot that and they are the ones that get dismissed,” Edwards said.
Still, she said, domestic violence situations can be a very gray. In some situations, she has advised clients facing a protective order to stop fighting it and to try to get some modifications, like parenting time. Other times, she has advised those seeking a protective order that they do not have enough evidence to support it.
Entanglements between spouses or family members can be contentious and very emotional, and not all the issues that accompany or lead to the filing of a protective order can be addressed by the courts, Bouwkamp said. He often advises his clients to get counseling to help them through the situation.
Blomquist agreed. She called victims of abuse and sexual assault survivors and said they need a holistic set of services to help them feel safe and to move forward.
“It’s a more complex issue than I think people can understand. It is one thing to get out (of an abusive relationship); it is another thing entirely to stay out,” she explained.•