Since February, Connecticut has seen three high-profile murders of victims of domestic violence — Shalanda Joyner, Alice Morrin and Tiana Notice. In the wake of these senseless tragedies, it is incumbent upon our community to assess the adequacy of the protections for victims of domestic violence.
On Feb. 14, Tiana Notice of Plainville was brutally stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend. She had obtained a civil restraining order against him. He had violated that order several times, and Ms. Notice had reported the stalking and harassment to three different police departments. Her father went so far as to install video surveillance at her home to obtain proof of the harassment by the ex-boyfriend. Tragically, Ms. Notice's murder was captured on tape.
Here was a victim who took every measure possible to protect herself — who did everything right. How and why did the system fail her?
Restraining and protective orders cannot be expected to eliminate all family violence. The ultimate responsibility for domestic violence lies with the abusers, not the system. But what policy changes will minimize the chances that such tragedies will occur?
Prompted by Ms. Notice's death, the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence has launched a Restraining and Protective Order Initiative. The coalition will review laws and practices and make recommendations for legislative improvements and changes in protocols for law enforcement and other state agencies.
One piece of information will be impossible to get: How many civil restraining orders have actually been served. Earlier this year, the Yale Legislative Advocacy Clinic discovered that the Judicial Branch does not track how many of the more than 8,000 applications filed annually are ultimately served.
Civil restraining orders protect victims of domestic violence by increasing the punishment associated with stalking, harassing or attacking the protected individual. For instance, entering certain buildings in violation of a restraining order constitutes criminal trespass in the first degree, punishable by up to a year in prison.
But enhanced protections are meaningless if alleged abusers are not properly served with orders: Not only do the orders fail to take legal effect, but alleged abusers are never alerted to the increased penalties intended to deter abuse.
Connecticut's system for serving civil restraining orders is patently illogical. Connecticut relies on independent contractors to handle the delivery of restraining orders. Although the state pays the cost of service ($30), the potential victims who obtain restraining orders are then burdened with the responsibility of getting a state marshal to serve them — usually without the aid of an attorney. (Many, if not most, victims apply without legal representation.)
This is a significant barrier, and it leaves the Judicial Branch unaware of whether victims have retained a state marshal to serve the order.
State marshals are scheduled to appear in local courthouses twice a day for one half-hour each time. If the person who has been granted a restraining order doesn't catch a marshal in this narrow time frame, he or she must call the local marshal's office to obtain service.
Many state marshals are reluctant to serve restraining orders. Alleged abusers are frequently difficult to locate; serving restraining orders is more dangerous than serving other legal papers; and marshals cannot earn more than the legal limit of $30 per service.
Fortunately, there is a pragmatic solution. According to the nonprofit organization Women'sLaw.org, at least 20 states instruct the court clerk to forward restraining orders directly to the personnel responsible for service.
This is a reasonable approach with many benefits. Enabling the Judicial Branch to assign restraining orders to marshals allows the state to track whether the orders are actually served and which marshals are most effective. Additionally, this measure would relieve victims of a significant burden, while preserving their ability to select a preferred marshal if they so desire.
Effective service of process is critical to protecting victims of domestic violence, the constitutional rights of alleged abusers and our confidence in a fair court system. Fixing the flaws in Connecticut's system for serving restraining orders represents a critical first step in conducting an honest, comprehensive review of the restraining and protective order system.
STOP THE VIOLENCE
Why has there been no progress in cutting down on domestic violence? Editorial, Page C2
• Jeffrey Tebbs is a third-year student at Yale Law School, where he serves as a member of the Legislative Advocacy Clinic and previously volunteered with the Temporary Restraining Order Project. Erika Tindill is executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.What's your opinion? Make it count with a Letter to the Editor. Visit www.courant.com/letters and scroll down.Copyright © 2015, CT Now