Domestic violence survivors, L.A. County Sheriff’s Department at odds over restraining orders
As the number of coronavirus deaths continued to climb in Los Angeles County last July, Cynthia Aguirre said she wasn’t leaving her house unless she had no other option.
The 36-year-old South Gate woman, who has long had rheumatoid arthritis, was at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. A single mother to a 1-year-old daughter born with a heart condition, Aguirre said she hadn’t been anywhere other than a grocery store for months.
The last thing Aguirre wanted to do was walk into the Long Beach courthouse. But she needed to start the process of divorcing her husband — who she alleges beat her repeatedly during a decadelong relationship — and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department wouldn’t serve him unless she brought them the documents in person.
“I started having mild panic attacks. We would only go to the essential things, grocery stores, that’s it. We hadn’t even gone into a doctor’s office,” she said.
Already in a dangerous situation, domestic violence survivors saw their lives become even more difficult because of the pandemic, advocates say. Calls to domestic violence hotlines and reports of abuse to the Los Angeles Police Department have increased as stay-at-home orders, job losses and other factors brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have worsened already rocky relationships, trapping abusers and their victims in proximity.
L.A. County court officials have tried to lessen the burden by allowing applications for restraining orders, and the hearings for them, to be filed or take place remotely. But advocates say many victims are still struggling to have the orders enforced.
The Sheriff’s Department will not accept requests to serve temporary restraining orders and divorce filings by email or fax; in some cases, that means vulnerable victims have had to risk their health to make sure the courts will enforce orders that many believe are necessary for their safety.
Advocates and attorneys say the issue is part of a broader pattern that has seen low-income clients forced to visit court facilities for unnecessary hearings that should be either delayed or handled online. In domestic violence cases, in which victims are often reluctant to come forward, some say adding an extra hurdle to obtaining a restraining order can have disastrous consequences.
“It has a definite chilling effect,” said Julianna Lee, a supervising attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. “They’re thinking, ‘All right, I’ve finally gotten in touch with a legal services agency, I’ve gotten a [temporary restraining order] … and it’s still not over.’”
The Sheriff’s Department says requests for service are often filed with errors or without necessary documents. If applications were submitted remotely, authorities say, they would end up with a stack of restraining orders they couldn’t legally serve.
“We don’t want to expose anybody to the virus. We want everybody to be safe, but we also want to make sure that we’re able to provide service as quickly as possible,” said Capt. Jesus Carrasco, head of the department’s Civil Management Bureau.
Trying to contact applicants whose submissions have errors could also prove challenging, Carrasco said, given the number of documents the department receives. Before the pandemic, the Sheriff’s Department received about 1,050 requests to serve temporary restraining orders each month, Carrasco said. But even as court activities have slowed during the COVID-19 outbreak, that number has dipped only to about 750 a month.
“It’d be the whole issue of locating folks, hoping that they get back to us … as opposed to having them on the spot, in front of us, where we can correct them,” Carrasco said, noting that temporary restraining orders often expire 21 days after they are granted by a judge.
Other law enforcement agencies, however, have modified their policies out of concern for vulnerable victims during the pandemic.
Ventura County Sheriff’s Capt. Eric Buschow said his agency began accepting service instructions for restraining orders via fax and email during the pandemic. In Orange County, the Sheriff’s Department began accepting such documents via mail or through drop-off boxes placed outside department buildings or courthouses, said Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the agency. In some cases, she said, restraining order instructions would also be sent directly to the Sheriff’s Department from the court that granted the order.
Carrasco said such exceptions would be impossible because of the volume of requests made in L.A. County. Braun said the Orange County Sheriff’s Department served 847 restraining orders from September 2020 through February 2021, slightly more than the average number of requests Carrasco said his department received each month during the pandemic.
It is not clear why instructions to serve restraining orders are not sent directly from L.A. County courtrooms to the Sheriff’s Department, though Carrasco said it is not common practice for the courts to do so in other civil matters. A court spokesperson declined to comment.
But attorneys representing victims of domestic and elder abuse have continued to plead for compromise. Amanda Jancu, a senior attorney with the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice, said the Sheriff’s Department’s rigid posture has created a “two-tiered system of justice.”
Many clients who rely on the Sheriff’s Department to serve court orders are low-income and cannot afford a private process server, she said. Jancu also noted that many of her clients lack access to a computer, printer or vehicle, meaning they had to expose themselves to public transit or other crowded spaces to get their paperwork together or reach a courthouse.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also led prosecutors to delay filing charges in some cases out of concern that the county’s massive case backlog might lead to speedy trial issues, and advocates say some abuse victims have no other legal respite besides a restraining order. In some cases, Jancu said, the delay in processing by the Sheriff’s Department has led to situations in which abusers can continue to harass their victims without consequence.
“Delaying service is detrimental in these cases,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of clients where they’re trying to file police reports and there’s not a proof of service, so there can’t be an arrest.”
Carrasco said the department is working on updating its intake process but is not set up to receive electronic submissions. Jancu said she hopes the Sheriff’s Department becomes more collaborative with advocacy groups to find a solution that helps the most important people in the process — abuse victims.
“A lot of the process is frustrating,” she said. “You would hope that the Sheriff’s Department … would want to work with people who are working exclusively with survivors of abuse and have fair insight into the barriers that are being formed.”
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