Low-income domestic violence survivors face uphill battle in obtaining court-ordered protections
Advocates urge more funding for housing, shelters and legal services as well as consistent policy implementation
Stacey Marron (on right), domestic violence program manager at Broadview Shelter, meets with Kelsey Fleetwood, a legal advocate, at Solid Ground’s main headquarters in Seattle, June 15, 2023. (Photo by Dan DeLong/InvestigateWest)
This article is the third in a three-part series from InvestigateWest.
If you are in a domestic violence situation, get connected with advocates and resources through the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence at https://wscadv.org/.
Nique showed up to her first court hearing in King County alone.
Homeless and without an attorney or victim advocate by her side, she filed for a protection order against her husband in April. She said she was escaping a psychologically abusive marriage and felt her life was in danger, court documents say.
After she submitted the paperwork detailing her situation, the King County Superior Court approved a temporary protection order, effective up to two weeks until the court could schedule a hearing to determine whether to issue a full protection order, which can last for a year or longer. But the hearing that day didn’t go as planned.
“I was spoken down to, didn’t really even feel heard, didn’t really get to say anything. It was almost like the commissioner was finding ways to defend my abuser instead of actually listening to what my complaint was,” said Nique, a King County resident who asked to go by a nickname out of fear that her husband might track her down.
Shortly after, the Superior Court denied the petition for a full protection order, saying there wasn’t enough evidence. Her husband’s total control of the family’s finances meant Nique couldn’t pay for her own attorney or housing, she said, putting her at a steep disadvantage in court compared to her ex, who had an attorney and remains housed.
“Because of my financial abuse, I had to jump through so many hoops just to get help. And I settled for help that just didn’t serve me,” she said.
Nique’s experience is not uncommon for survivors of domestic abuse. Domestic violence is a primary driver of homelessness for women and children across the country, with nearly 40% of domestic violence victims becoming homeless at some point in their lives, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Once homeless, lacking resources that their abuser may have, it can be difficult to obtain the court-ordered protection that could help keep them safe.
Unreliable access to technology and the internet, along with the cost of transportation and child care, can be insurmountable obstacles for some low-income survivors trying to file protection orders and keep up with court hearings. It can also be difficult for victims experiencing homelessness to find access to shelter, advocates or legal services that would vastly improve their chances of getting orders granted, advocates say.
On top of logistical barriers, attorneys representing domestic violence victims in Washington say the way that homeless victims appear in court — oftentimes exhausted and unkempt — can make them appear less credible in the court’s eyes and lead to a petition being rejected. About 51% of full civil protection orders for domestic violence in King County are denied, according to court data obtained by InvestigateWest.
Washington lawmakers passed legislation in 2021 to improve accessibility and effectiveness of civil protection orders, with many changes taking effect in July 2022. Another law that passed this year, which takes effect July 23, expands training for law enforcement and judicial officers on protection order enforcement and proceedings, adding to Washington’s robust protection order policies that are already stronger than in many other states.
But advocates and service providers say the policy changes, while a step forward, fail to account for the unique needs of low-income and homeless survivors of domestic violence, who make up a large portion of those who seek protection orders.
They call for more funding for housing, shelters and legal services for domestic violence survivors. They also say the new provisions need to be implemented consistently across the state for the process to become truly accessible to low-income survivors of domestic violence.
“We need to take a look at those causes (of homelessness) — of which DV is a huge one — and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Are we putting enough resources into that thing that’s just dumping people into homelessness?’” said Laurie Davenport, communications director at Tacomaprobono Community Lawyers, a nonprofit legal aid organization in Pierce County. “The fact that victims don’t have easy access to legal help to get some protections is a big deal.”
A week after Nique left her husband, he drained the money from their joint bank account, she alleged in court documents. With her money running out fast, she managed to get a spot at Broadview Shelter and Transitional Housing, the only remaining emergency domestic violence shelter in Seattle, according to Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence, a member-based organization that supports domestic violence service providers in King County.
“Within weeks, I went from being in a four-bedroom house and retired to being at a homeless shelter with really nothing,” Nique said.
Seattle has lost two emergency domestic violence shelters in the last decade due to funding and program changes, leaving all of King County with just three designated domestic violence shelters, according to Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence. “There is definitely a gap in emergency domestic violence shelters in Seattle and King County,” said Lea Aromin, the coalition’s co-executive director of programs.
Fortunately for Nique, she had enough money left to stay at hotels for a few weeks while waiting for a unit to open up at Broadview, where access to advocates, legal services and housing assistance has been a game changer for her, she said. Despite her protection order being denied, the support and privacy Nique found at the shelter allows her to feel safe.
“I was lucky to get into Broadview,” she said. “I was able to get my bearings back and get balanced so I could make a plan and go for it.”
But many survivors aren’t so lucky. Operated by the nonprofit organization Solid Ground, Broadview has 10 shelter units and 21 transitional housing units — far below the capacity needed to meet demand in the area, according to Stacey Marron, the shelter’s domestic violence program manager. In King County, 760 (37%) of 2,042 families seeking shelter through the county’s Emergency Family Shelter Intake line in 2022 identified as fleeing domestic violence, according to data from Mary’s Place, a Seattle shelter provider that operates the intake line.
Despite a spike in domestic violence rates during the COVID-19 pandemic, federal funding for domestic violence services and shelters has dwindled over the past five years.
To counteract a 23% cut in federal funding for crime victim services this year, the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence along with other service providers requested $132 million in biennial state funding in January. The state approved $50.8 million in its budget, providing a mix of ongoing and one-time funding.
Still, advocates and attorneys serving domestic violence survivors across Washington agree there are not nearly enough legal and housing resources to meet the needs of clients, particularly low-income ones. Without housing or shelter, victims may stay with their abusers rather than risk filing a protection order that may not pan out.
Marla Rapp, an attorney with the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program, has seen clients go back to their abusers for financial reasons.
“They didn’t know how they were going to make things work on their own. And in those situations, they almost always had children,” Rapp said.
If they do file for a protection order, unconscious bias within the court system can make it difficult for low-income or homeless domestic violence survivors without an attorney to appear credible to a judge, said Angela Rogness, manager of the King County Protection Order Advocacy Program, which helps King County residents file for protection orders.
In King County, just 9% of people filing for protection orders through the Superior Court between 2016 and mid-2021 had an attorney, according to a King County Auditor’s Office analysis. The analysis found petitioners with an attorney were 60% more likely to obtain a full protection order than those without.
In a typical scenario, an abuser comes to court looking confident and put-together, Rogness said. The survivor, on the other hand, often looks disheveled.
“Maybe they’re not in the best clothes, they look a mess, they’re not sleeping, they’re not housed,” she said. “Courts are supposed to look at credibility in terms of the words people are saying. But I don’t know how people can completely (ignore) if somebody just looks a mess.”
Sometimes victims decide not to move forward with a petition because they think they won’t be believed in court, said Riddhi Mukhopadhyay, executive director of the Sexual Violence Law Center, a statewide nonprofit law firm that serves sexual violence victims. The majority (61%) of full domestic violence protection orders in King County that are denied are denied because the person filing the order either requested a dismissal or failed to appear in court, according to court data obtained by InvestigateWest.
“The law is written to make it accessible — survivor-friendly, litigant-friendly — but there are definitely still issues with survivors being able to navigate systems without support,” Mukhopadhyay said. “It is really frustrating to see survivors sort of self-select out of a process that is meant to actually support them.”
Washington’s updated protection order law allows virtual court hearings and the filing of petitions online. This is helpful for survivors who can’t afford transportation to the courthouse, parking or child care, Rogness said. It also helps from a safety perspective for survivors like Nique who don’t want to be in the same space as their abusers.
But moving the protection order process online comes with its own challenges, like the need for technology, internet and electricity to charge devices — none of which are a guarantee for low-income or homeless survivors.
“Online filing submissions are great for folks that understand technology and have the hardware to do it,” Rogness said. “I worry about leaving those behind that don’t have that physical hardware, that tech know-how.”
The King County Protection Order Advocacy Program offers to review survivors’ online protection order petitions to ensure they’re written in a way that’s likely to be approved. “We really try to get to them fast, but we just can’t keep up,” Rogness said. “We regularly don’t get to those folks in a timely fashion, and then they end up filing on their own.”
When petitions are filed incorrectly or denied, consequences for survivors’ safety can be huge, Rogness said.
The denial can damage a survivors’ credibility in the courts’ eyes, making their efforts to refile an uphill battle. “For the survivor psychology, it can be really terrible,” Rogness said. “They’re like, ‘I did what I was told to do … but the court didn’t believe me.’”
The uncertainty and instability that comes with fleeing a home can hold up the court process as well, especially in jurisdictions where new virtual options aren’t being implemented uniformly.
When victims file for a protection order, the alleged abuser — or “respondent” — must be served with the court hearing information. In Washington, law enforcement or process servers often carry out this service by meeting the respondent at an address provided by the victim.
Marron, Broadview’s domestic violence program manager, said the majority of her homeless clients filing for protection orders don’t know where their abuser is located, as the abuser has also left whatever home they previously lived in, making in-person service a challenge. Under the updated law, respondents can now be served electronically through email, social media or text messaging, a process called electronic service.
Marron said this virtual option is useful for homeless domestic violence survivors — when it’s accepted by law enforcement and the court.
Different judicial officers interpret the electronic service policy differently. Some only require proof that the message was sent to the respondent while others require proof that it was read, according to Rogness.
While Marron said she’s been able to use electronic service in King County with ease, she’s struggled to use it in Pierce County, where the court typically accepts it only as a second option if it’s not possible to provide a physical address for the respondent, according to the Pierce County Clerk of the Superior Court.
Rogness thinks more clarity in the law regarding when electronic service is accepted, along with more resources and training for officers carrying out service, could help victims avoid these service issues.
“I think if we can get some more standardization to have, ‘This is the best practice. This is what the court shall accept,’ that would be good,” she said.
For Nique, getting a room at Broadview was crucial in her ability to navigate the court system and feel safe while doing it. Since the negative interaction with the commissioner during her first protection order hearing, she’s had an advocate by her side at every subsequent hearing, she said.
“(Broadview staff members) do try their best to make it as comfortable for you as they can, but legally, they also walk you through all the steps that you need to walk through,” Nique said. “Because you’re at a disadvantage at the moment. It’s not easy being displaced.”
InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. This project was supported with funding from the Data-Driven Reporting Project and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. The Data-Driven Reporting Project is funded by the Google News Initiative in partnership with Northwestern University | Medill.
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