Protective orders rise with new law

Domestic violence system available 24 hours a day

Workload worries courts

Commissioners had 6,800 cases from Dec. to Aug.

October 06, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Maryland courts have seen a huge jump in the number of domestic violence cases this year, with thousands more complaints coming into district courts.

The increase seems to be the result of a new law that makes emergency protective orders available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Although many say this wave of cases proves that the law -- which took effect Dec. 18, 2002 -- has given victims better access to judicial protection, it is causing concern among the court commissioners responsible for issuing orders at night and on weekends.

According to court system numbers, commissioners across the state handled about 6,800 requests for domestic violence protection orders and peace orders from Dec. 18 to late August. That's in addition to the cases handled by the courts during normal business hours.

"Let's just say that this started December 18," said Joel A. Snyder, Baltimore County's frosty-haired administrative commissioner. "On December 18, I had black hair."

Commissioners are court officers who handle a variety of constitutionally described tasks such as presiding over bail hearings and signing arrest warrants.

They are at the district courts at all times, so when legislators and court officials were looking for a way to expand access to protection orders, the commissioners were a practical choice for the job.

Before December, Maryland domestic violence victims could get protective orders only during court hours, a situation that critics said was dangerous and kept many victims from seeking help.

"Emergencies don't just occur Monday through Friday, 9 to 5," said Baltimore County District Judge Alexandra N. Williams.

At the urging of court officials and the state's Family Violence Council, a group created in 1995 to study the state's domestic violence problems, legislators expanded the commissioners' job last year so they could give interim protection orders. Because the commissioners' role is outlined by the state's constitution, voters had to approve the change. The ballot item passed by a 7 to 1 margin.

Snyder and other commissioners say they believe in the new law but add that it has brought a huge amount of work without any corresponding increase in money or personnel.

In Baltimore County, Williams, who is the administrative judge, is worried about safety risks for her commissioners as they deal with explosive domestic violence situations without added security.

Anne Arundel County District Judge Martha F. Rasin, who took a leading role in drafting the law, acknowledges that it has meant more cases for a busy court system and more work for commissioners.

Statistics from this year might persuade legislators to allocate money for more commissioners, she said.

"The responsible way for the court to respond to that is to provide the services," she said.

"If we need more judges, the legislature should give more judges. If we need more commissioners, the legislature should provide more commissioners."

In Baltimore County, commissioners took almost 1,300 requests from Dec. 18 to late August. The number of requests for domestic violence and peace orders during court hours in the county remained the same or increased.

"It's an unbelievable number of people using the system," said Dorothy J. Lennig, director of the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic at the House of Ruth.

The commissioners' interim orders can force someone accused of being a violent offender to stay away from the complainants' home or workplace. The protection order is valid for 48 business hours, after which complainants must start the court process if they want permanent protection.

The orders can be time-consuming for commissioners. Before December, they had dealt only with criminal issues, not civil ones, so the new role has required significant training.

Additionally, people who need domestic violence orders or peace orders, similar protections against nonfamily members, often are in emotionally vulnerable situations.

"You must be caring. You must take your time," Snyder said.

But even Snyder, with his staff stretched to the limit, said the huge increase in cases shows the law's importance.

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