Restraining orders are one of the things that are supposed to help protect domestic violence victims. A KHON2 investigation has found that far too often, they take far too long to get into the right hands. We pushed to see how this could change.
Beaten with bats and golf clubs, threatened with her life at the barrel of a loaded gun, mental and emotional abuse — after 7 years of it, a domestic abuse survivor tells us, she finally worked up the courage to escape. She got a court order for the abuser to stay away.
“An officer in front of me threw my paperwork on the desk and said, ‘It’s just another TRO, it’s just another TRO,’ ” said the victim, who we are not identifying for her safety. “They weren’t able to contact him. He was nowhere to be found.”
Not found, not served by the police who are responsible for that final step for Family Court protective orders. Yet, her abuser finds her, like just the other day, as she was leaving a park with her child.
“He threatens that he’s gonna kill me, he says [expletive] I’m gonna kill you,” she said. “He’s there in a heartbeat, he’s there, and the police can’t serve him after, what, four or five months?”
She’s not alone in wondering when will her abuser be served.
“We do hear that from the clients from the Domestic Violence Action Center that their partners were not served with the order that they obtained at court,” said the center’s director Nancy Kreidman. “We are certainly acutely aware that this is a problem.”
But just how big of a problem? To figure that out, we took more than a year’s worth of TRO data — thousands of cases — and looked them up one by one in the court system to see just when they were served.
We found fewer than half took only about a day or two to get into the hands of the respondent. A quarter of them took up to a week. Nearly one in five took a month to track down the recipient, sometimes even longer.
And a full 15 percent — nearly one in six – of this year’s filings are simply unserved. Whether that’s because it’s still in the victim’s hands — never taken in for service — or in a police to-do stack, or whether they’re un-findable by authorities isn’t clear from the court record.
When we asked police, why so slow, they said bad information on the respondents’ whereabouts is the main reason.
Some victim advocates say they see different response rates depending on the district.
“The police have varying priorities,” said Dennis Dunn, of the Victim Witness Kokua program at the Honolulu Prosecutor’s office. If there’s a robbery in progress and serving a TRO, you’re giving them a really difficult choice.”
The Honolulu Police Department said in a statement, “Daily staffing and workload could possibly delay service of a TRO, but this is rare. The department knows the importance of TROs and makes every effort to process them.”
Protective order filings have soared over the past decade to more than 10,000 a year statewide in the various court venues where they can be obtained. Police are responsible for serving most of those, and all of them from Family Court. Violations are reported thousands of times a year, and police have to jump on that too, making hundreds of arrests.
Meanwhile victims waiting for protective orders to be served are literally screaming for help.
“They dismissed me, I got loud, I got irate,” one of the victims we spoke with told KHON2, regarding her latest visit to the police station to ask about the status of serving her abuser. “I said, ‘are you waiting for me to [expletive] show up dead? Are you serious? What is it going to take for me to get some kind of attention on this?”
Advocates for victims are calling for attention, too.
“Understand that each individual restraining order represents a potential serious crime,” Dunn said, “or even a potential homicide.”
That’s a potential that becomes reality all too often. Homicide victim Royal Kaukani had been granted a TRO against abusive ex-boyfriend Toi Nofoa. But that stay-away order took police nearly a month serve. We asked to delve into her file at the Honolulu Prosecutor’s office to find out why.
“We know that she had a difficult time getting him served, she had to extend the order to effect service, that she subsequently had to take the papers to a different police substation to serve him,” Dunn said, reading through note after note about failed attempts to get Nofoa served. “Ultimately he was only served because he had another court appearance in yet another matter that he was going to at court for, and they served him there. she basically had to go through all of this herself, so it’s putting a lot of onus and responsibility on the victim to make the process work.”
It turns out this was the second time she tried. We discovered a prior TRO she was granted, that Nofoa never got. Nofoa kidnapped her at gunpoint soon after that unserved TRO.
“Why it wasn’t served or whether she decided not to go through with it we’ll never really know,” Dunn said. “It’s clear that she understood that he was dangerous.”
Our investigation found, time and again, that the victim having to be their own courier between court and cops can be the critical flaw in the system.
“It is a lot to ask,” Kreidman said. “It’s a terrifying decision to make in the first place to share the private and embarrassing details of your violent partnership in a public setting like a court, and it’s terrifying to think that it could result in retaliation, and then to follow through with all the necessary steps is additional burden.”
We asked the family court why, and the Judiciary told KHON2 in a statement: “The court will not force an unsure or subsequently unwilling petitioner to effectuate the injunction, nor, as the neutral, fair and objective adjudicator, can the court serve the injunction on the petitioner’s behalf.”
But isn’t getting a TRO in the first place signal enough that a person needs protection, regardless of second thoughts after court?
“Something has catalyzed her to go at this moment to get the restraining order so it’s dangerous,” Kreidman said.
“On the way there you’re thinking, you’re crying, I’m clenching my driving wheel thinking do I want to do this,” a victim told us, describing what goes through her head on the way from the court-house to the police station, “because I think I can avoid it ‘if’…and then I go back into my old patterns of what allowed me to stay in the relationship.”
“I’m already struggling to get into the court to file this TRO,” she continued, “so now I have to go to the police station and get you guys to track him down? I think from the courthouse it should go straight to the police station.”
KHON2 asked, is there anything that can be done to tighten up the amount of time between getting that TRO in court and getting it into the police’s hands?
“There should be a way we can do that in such a way so it’s transmitted electronically to the police,” Dunn said, “and the police then can serve it rather than having the victim have to go take it to the right place.”
We went back to the Judiciary to ask again — can’t something be done to eliminate that victim-delivered step between court and police service? And in response to our question and what we found in this investigation, we were told this by a Judiciary spokesperson Wednesday: “The Family Court of the First Circuit will consider the recommendation to allow law enforcement to immediately serve domestic restraining orders on respondents upon approval by the court. We will consult with the police and other agencies to ensure that any change in procedure further protects petitioners and their families.”