The cut on Artemia Hernandez’s upper lip, where she said her husband had struck her Friday night, was still bleeding Tuesday afternoon as she sat on a bench, clenching a blue file, waiting for the doors of a Los Angeles Superior Court room to open.
The 25-year-old mother of three hung her head as if she were ashamed and whispered in Spanish that her life and the lives of her children were in danger from an abusive husband “who doesn’t care about anything but his beer.”
She fled to a battered women’s shelter over the weekend, a 21-day refuge that she cannot even name. But the shelter is not enough.
“I need protection,” she said.
So on Tuesday, the young mother stood in line inside Department 8 of Family Law Court along with about 30 other frightened, battered people, mostly women, seeking the power of a judge’s signature to order their tormentors out of their lives and away from their homes.
“They come to court every day and they are desperate,” said Richard Graf, head of the Family Law Courts at Los Angeles County Superior Court. “They need help now.”
In legal jargon the people inside Department 8 are seeking a domestic violence temporary restraining order, nicknamed TROs, against husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends and even children who have physically and emotionally abused them. So far this year, 2,758 such orders have been issued out of Department 8’s courtroom.
One such order was issued last January to Maria Navarro, 27, of East Los Angeles, who sought court relief from her abusive husband. Although Navarro’s restraining order had expired, authorities said, her husband’s rage apparently had not. Raymond Navarro was arrested early Monday, accused of killing his wife, two of her aunts and a family friend in a rampage at a birthday party.
Court authorities said Tuesday that the Navarro family killings bring into focus the biggest pitfall of restraining orders.
“How can a piece of paper protect someone against the thrust of a dagger?” asked Commissioner Hugh E. Macbeth, who reviews each TRO in Los Angeles Superior Court. “The order is only as strong as the regard for authority that the person it is directed toward has for the law.”
Violation of the TRO is a misdemeanor offense. Court clerks mail a copy of the order to local police agencies, which keep the documents on file to verify a victim’s call to enforce the order.
Once granted, the court document commonly orders an abuser to move out of his or her house and keep 100 or 150 yards away from it and the people inside. Abusive fathers or mothers are told to stay away from their children’s school and not telephone family members. Temporary custody of children and even cars can be granted.
The abused simply walk into the courtroom, receive an application from the clerk and sit back in the bench to explain in handwritten accounts the grim and often terrifying reasons why the court should referee their relationships.
“He grabbed me by the hair, hit my head against the wall and when I started to scream he forced me on my knees and pushed my head down,” one Playa del Rey woman wrote. “I still screamed and he stuffed something in my mouth. Breathing was difficult. I managed to get free, but he threatened to kill me with a knife.”
The woman’s live-in boyfriend was ordered to keep 150 yards away from her and turn over their car so she could drive to work.
Macbeth, a 70-year-old family law lawyer who speaks in wise, grandfatherly tones, said his rulings are solely based on the victim’s written descriptions. In cases of alleged domestic violence, the law does not require a hearing with the suspect before issuing a temporary restraining order.
“These are some of the most drastic orders allowed by law,” he said. “It is a tremendous restriction of someone’s liberty and freedom of movement.”
Tuesday he stripped a Norwalk man of visiting rights to his three daughters and ordered him to move out of his house and stay 100 yards away from it and his family.
“My husband, throughout our marriage, has been physically abusive,” the man’s wife wrote. “He becomes violent when he drinks.” On July 7, she alleged, he twisted her arm and threatened to kill her in front of her daughters. On July 15, he attempted to choke her daughter. “He told me he was dangerous,” she said in neat handwriting.
Macbeth granted 20 orders Tuesday. He said it was an average day’s work.
In each case, a hearing date was scheduled for about three weeks later. At that time, both parties are to appear before Macbeth. He then will decide whether to issue a three-year restraining order. He said about half of the people do not show up for the second hearing and the temporary order expires.
One 27-year-old South Los Angeles woman said Tuesday that she is unsure whether the order she received will keep her cocaine-addicted boyfriend away from her and her six children. “When he came to the house and stole their school clothes for money, that was the last straw,” she said, holding one of children while the other five sat with a neighbor in the back of the courtroom. “Maybe this will shock him enough to stay away until he cleans up his life.”
But for most people inside Department 8, the theft would seem like a minor offense compared to physical abuses, court authorities said.
A Los Angeles woman, whose husband was ordered out of the family’s apartment Monday, wrote: “We had very little food at home. When I asked him for money he got angry and hit me in the back of the head. I just want him to leave us alone and leave us in peace.”
And in the court files there is this complaint: “I can’t go anywhere or live in peace,” the young mother of three wrote. “Now I’m staying with my mother and I’m scared.” That was written last January and resulted in a TRO being summarily granted to Maria Navarro.