Until recently, victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault, harassment or vulnerable adults needed to fill out specific petitions to request a protection order. Using the wrong form caused trouble in court, making it longer for an order to be issued. Under law 1320-2021, beginning in July, only one thick standard document will be necessary.
“I anticipate the changes will make it easier for unrepresented individuals to navigate the process and obtain protection,” said Courtney Smith, SAFE San Juans Program Manager.
SAFE San Juans is a nonprofit organization with the mission to prevent and eliminate domestic violence and sexual assault through victim services, education, community awareness and cultural and social change. The group serves both residents and visitors of San Juan County.
The legislative change hopes to remove some of the hurdles people face while enduring the protection order process. According to Smith, Washington lawmakers reached out to domestic and sexual assault agencies for input while crafting the bill, and most importantly, had discussions with survivors.
“Their intention was to make it easier for survivors to get immediate relief without so many barriers in the way,” Smith said.
Smith explained that protection orders are not easily obtained. First, survivors must prove more likely than not that abuse occurred. To provide that evidence, they retell their story in the petition and or give testimony during a hearing with their abuser present. Both scenarios amount to reliving the trauma, which is extremely difficult.
“Recounting traumatic events can be triggering and emotional,” Smith said. It isn’t uncommon for individuals to wonder if they will be believed or blamed for their own abuse.
As a result, victims are often hesitant to fill out the paperwork necessary, and struggle recounting their stories.
“We explain ..that protection orders are public record, and what they put in the petition can be seen by others. It is extremely important for survivors to know the whole process and the pros and cons… We never want our clients to be surprised by something they did not know.” Smith said.
Lisa Henderson, San Juan County Superior Court Clerk, said in the past, there was confusion when individuals filled out the petitions, which occasionally caused issues in court. The new document, she said, will save the petitioner from having to fill out an entirely new form should the original petition be filed under the wrong statute.
“The hope is that it will make it easier on the petitioner. Getting a court order and navigating the protection order process can be overwhelming,” Henderson said. “It is hoped that providing a “one-stop petition” will make working through the system a little easier.”
Henderson explained that currently, the clerks lightly quiz a person who comes in requesting a protection order, to make sure the clerks are pointing the individual in the right direction. The combined petition eliminates some of that process, according to Henderson.
Smith is hopeful SAFE San Juans clients will benefit from the changes.
“In our opinion, some of the changes that will help survivors are remote appearances for hearings, electronic service options, the addition of coercive control in the legal definition [of the bill] and dropping the age to petition for all protection orders to 15 years old, with the exception of Vulnerable Adult Protection Orders, “ Smith said.
Of the changes brought on by bill 1320, the biggest challenge, according to Smith, has been new protocols for how the petition is served to the other party. Bill 1320 allows for service to be completed via email, social media applications, texts and other technologies. However, according to San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs, proof the restrained party actually saw service via social media.
“[Service through Facebook] makes no sense,” Krebs said, adding that enforcing a protection order without evidence that the person is aware of the order is extremely difficult.
Smith commends the sheriff’s office not only for learning the new changes but for working to understand the issues victims face.
“The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office has made big strides to understand the challenges survivors face. Just recently they changed their policies and procedures to make it standard to reach out to an advocate at SSJ when they respond to calls of domestic violence and sexual assault,” Smith said, adding that the non-profit and sheriff’s office communicate frequently regarding order violations as well as reporting assault.
“Deputies come to our offices to take reports, this helps survivors feel comfortable and supported. They have also worked hard to understand the new laws on service and continue to work with our agency to make sure survivors have protection,” Smith said.
Henderson stated her main concern is the length of the new petition.
“Even before the changes, the packet that the clerk’s office provides is pretty intimidating,” Henderson said.
San Juan County has a range of resources to assist. Besides Safe San Juans or the sheriff’s office, both the Joyce Soble Family Resource Center and San Juan County’s Victim Services may be able to help, Henderson said. San Juan County District and Superior Court Clerk’s Office’s staff are also available.
“We have caring people ready to help. Even if the questions are outside our wheelhouse, we will be able to point you in the direction of agencies that can assist,” Henderson said.
To learn more about SAFE San Juans visit https://safesj.org/resources/.
To learn more about the superior court clerk’s office, visit https://www.sanjuanco.com/184/County-Clerk, or district court clerks at https://www.sanjuanco.com/231/District-Court.