Bruised, bloodied and vulnerable, victims of domestic abuse often need more than just emergency medical treatment, experts say. They require immediate legal help as well.
Until recently, though, they usually had to wait for the latter, often until the next day and in some cases the attacker could return to harm the victim again.
But a pilot program started 18 months ago in Orange County requires judges to be available around the clock to approve Emergency Protective Orders. Those immediate, temporary documents, known as EPOs, can order an abusive spouse, partner or relative away for as long as five business days, giving the victim time to apply for a permanent injunction.
Police officers can page whichever judge is on call and get approval immediately if the facts of the case justify such action.
“Its kind of like the emergency room of the courthouse,” said Judge Eileen C. Moore, chairwoman of the Orange County Family Violence Council. “You take somebody who has just been beaten or who is in fear of being beaten, and it gives them access to the courts 24 hours a day.”
When an EPO is issued, it takes effect immediately, even if the attacker fled the scene before police arrived and cannot be located and given a copy.
Besides requiring a suspected abuser to stay away from the victim, an EPO can also assign temporary custody of a child.
Since the pager program started in October 1995, judges, officers and domestic-violence counselors say they have seen a dramatic rise in the use of EPOs.
EPOs have been available to police at the scene of a domestic attack since 1987. But officers said they were often reluctant or unable to reach any judge to approve an order after midnight or on weekends.
Officers at the scene of a violent domestic incident after hours had to call the County Jail and let an officer there determine if the situation was serious enough to contact a judge.
“It gave them the discretion to decide whether or not to wake up a judge,” instead of letting the officer at the scene decide, Moore said.
Superior Court Commissioner Thomas H. Schulte said that the process simply took too long.
“The officer is at the kitchen table with the husband in cuffs, the kids crying and the wife all beat up, and they’re waiting for a half-hour,” said Schulte, who specializes in family issues. Meanwhile, the officer on the scene might be getting calls requesting police response to other situations.
“That’s the last time they’re going to choose to call the judge, and you can’t blame them,” Schulte said.
Officials set about changing the situation after they learned that only 52 EPOs were granted in Orange County in all of 1994. That was equal to the number issued that year in Shasta County, which has only 1/16th the population of Orange County.
Under the new system, Orange County is up to about 50 EPOs a month, Schulte said, and officials hope to reach about 1,500 annually. That would be about the same number as Santa Clara County, which includes San Jose. A paging program there served as the model for Orange County’s, he said.
In spite of the increase in EPOs, “I still don’t think they’re being utilized to the extent they could be,” said Sharon McGuire, an abuse counselor at the Women’s Walk-In Resource Center in Fullerton.
She said many women are not aware that such an order can be granted, and some police officers do not pass on the information. Most agencies, though, have been helpful, she said.
Irvine Police Lt. Tom Hume acknowledged that a piece of paper won’t keep a determined attacker at bay.
“If he does come back, it says, ‘Guess what? You’re going to jail for violating the order,’ ” he said. “We don’t get that many people who go back unless they’re on a mission, so to speak.”
But McGuire said even if the attacker ignores the court order and returns, it’s good for the victim to establish a paper trail, to document a pattern of abuse.
The fact that judges are willing to work after hours to issue the orders signals that they consider domestic violence to be “abhorrent behavior,” Schulte said. “This is not something society accepts.”
“That’s the biggest advantage to this kind of response,” he said. “The word gets out that you don’t hit. That’s all, that’s the gist of what we’re saying.”
Thirty-one judges and commissioners have volunteered to be available one day a month for the program, said Moore, whose on-call day is the 11th.
There has never yet been an instance in which a judge was grumpy about being paged at midnight or later, she said. “These judges have the fervor of volunteers. They want to see this program work.”