City takes steps to protect victims of domestic violence

Crime, Law and JusticeLaws and LegislationJustice SystemBaltimore Police Department

It takes incredible courage for a victim of domestic violence to apply for a protective order. Victims must make their way to the courthouse, often while they are still experiencing the effects of their abuse. At the courthouse, they must write a description of how they were abused, and then describe their abuse again to a judge, often in front of a courtroom filled with strangers. If the judge determines that there has been abuse, the judge will issue a temporary protective order that must be served by a law enforcement officer on the alleged abuser. Most of us do not realize, however, that until the temporary protective order is served on the abuser, these victims' cases cannot move forward to a final hearing. Victims remain in a place of limbo, returning to court again and again to renew temporary orders that provide only partial relief.

Baltimore City is one of the few jurisdictions where the police department, instead of the office of the sheriff, was tasked with the job of serving temporary protective orders issued by the District Court. In Baltimore, only about 30 percent of all protective orders end up being served on the alleged abusers, an appallingly low number. This means that almost three-quarters of domestic violence victims in Baltimore have to return again and again to court while law enforcement continues to try to serve the abuser. Most of these victims are never able to get final protective orders at all, because the respondents were never served. Research and experience tell us that domestic violence victims are safer when they obtain final protective orders. But when temporary protective orders remain unserved, victims go without important forms of protection from their abusers.

For decades, Baltimore police officers have had to serve protective orders as an additional responsibility on top of their normal law enforcement functions. In contrast, the sheriff's office routinely serves court papers in many types of court cases. The House of Ruth has advocated for many years for the sheriff's office to take over this responsibility, but we were never able to generate enough momentum to make this happen.

This year, a group of Baltimore City public servants put their best minds and talents together to remedy what had come to feel like an intractable problem. The Baltimore mayor's office pulled all the right people together to come up with a solution to the problem. The sheriff's office stepped up to the plate and agreed to create a new specialized unit that will now serve all temporary protective orders in Baltimore. The Baltimore Police Department agreed to facilitate the transition of these responsibilities to the sheriff's department. The mayor's office spearheaded the lobbying efforts to get legislation passed that will help pay for these changes. The General Assembly passed the law by an overwhelming majority.

As a result, beginning July 1, the Baltimore City Sheriff's Office will become responsible for serving temporary protective orders issued by the District Court. Because of the efforts of many individuals in these various agencies, thousands of victims of domestic violence in Baltimore will be safer because they will be able to receive final protective orders.

These agencies and the individuals who represent them exemplify the true heart of public service, which is to work courageously to solve the problems of our city that no one thinks can be solved, to move forward on these problems day after day, and to do it together. Their innovative, coordinated work should inspire all of us that together we can figure out new solutions to old problems. On behalf of all of the victims of domestic violence who they might never see, but whose lives they will have made safer, we applaud and thank you.

Dorothy J. Lennig (dlennig@hruthmd.org) is House of Ruth Maryland's legal clinic director. Judith A. Wolfer and Deena Hausner are House of Ruth Maryland's managing attorneys.

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