Sharon Nash was tired of her boyfriend coming home drunk every night. Late one September night, when his cab pulled up to their South Baltimore apartment and he demanded she pay his seven dollar cab fare, they began to fight. After the cab pulled away, she told court officials later, he beat and choked her.
Until 1992, when new Maryland legislation expanded protection against abuse to unmarried couples, Ms. Nash would have had few places to turn. But now, she and other victims are turning to district courts and are doing so in unprecedented numbers -- 14,000 people filed for temporary protection orders last year, three times the number five years ago.
But while the new laws, which also extended the protection orders from 30 days to 200 days and protect parents and couples of the same sex, are considered a major advance in preventing domestic abuse, many complain there are side effects. Judges, for example, say the flood of cases has jammed district courts around the state, delaying other cases, creating mountains of paperwork and, in some cases, forcing judges to make hasty decisions.
"It's had a tremendous impact," said Judge Frank M. Kratovil of Prince George's County District Court, whose courthouse is struggling to handle the increase in abuse cases from nearly 800 in 1990 to 3,000 last year. "The whole system is overloaded."
Many worry the crush of cases is weakening the effect of the legislation. Only a quarter of the 14,000 victims who filed for temporary protection orders last year, which legally forbid abusers from coming near the victim's home or workplace for seven days, were successful in obtaining a protective order lasting 200 days. Most of the cases, after one week, were dismissed or denied.
Nobody is certain why. But victims' advocates suspect there are not enough police officers to serve the growing number of offenders with court papers, and a lack of counseling to prevent the victim from returning to the abusive partner.
"In some cases, we just lose people because they're not going to sit and wait," said Jennifer DuLaney, a victim's advocate in Anne Arundel District Court, which saw a caseload increase of 400 in 1990 to 1,100 last year.
Others say the judges don't have the time to listen to each case.
"If they are backed up with 25 cases, there may be some inclination upon some judges to give victims the short shrift," said Carol Alexander, director of the House of Ruth domestic violence center in Baltimore.
Take Ms. Nash, for example. She missed work a second time to return to court to renew her seven-day protection order. She would like a 200-day order, but can not obtain one until police track down her boyfriend and serve him with court papers, and Ms. Nash says her boyfriend is hiding. After four weeks, Ms. Nash's option to renew the temporary order will expire -- she cannot refile until she is abused again.
But Ms. Nash did not know her protection could expire and said she felt relief that the court could offer some protection.
"It took a month to come here because I was afraid," said Ms. Nash, a 34-year-old factory worker. "I'm not as afraid as I was."
Judges and the courts say they are doing what they can to manage the rush. Many judges have set aside courtrooms for abuse cases. On mornings after a holiday or weekend, advocates and legal aides are placed in courthouse lobbies to advise the crowd of women. Additional police officers have been hired in some courts in attempts to serve court papers to a growing list of offenders. In Prince George's, a domestic violence center hired a private attorney to represent victims.
But along with the increase in numbers, the cases themselves now are also more time-consuming. The new laws broadened the kind of protection victims can seek. Judges now find they must not only rule on whether abuse occurred, but also on sticky issues such as child custody, real estate claims, divorce proceedings, counseling and what to do when both parties are guilty of abuse.
"Any one of these cases can take hours," said Judge Essom V. Ricks, of Anne Arundel District Court. "We ask if the parties can reach an agreement and then we try to get people with agreements in and out as soon as possible."
Judge Norman E. Johnson was particularly burdened one busy morning in Baltimore District Court recently. The judge had 46 cases on his daily docket to hear -- an average of nine minutes per case. Baltimore District court saw a record 3,393 cases last year, and judges were pushed to set aside an entire courtroom each day to handle the domestic violence docket.
In the crowded lobby, a long, scattered line of tired-looking woman extended from the clerk's office into the hallway, and the constant cry of "next" rang out. Babies wailed, and women sorted through their papers or talked with strangers about their abuse and legal wranglings.
"I had to wait for four hours last week," Ms. Nash warned another woman standing nearby in the hallway.