In Orange County, domestic-violence victims can now get protection online

Orange County makes e-filing available for domestic violence orders

Orange County is the 10th county statewide to offer domestic violence victims the option of seeking a protective order from a judge through e-file and videoconferencing available at the Sheriff's Office and at the Compass Center in Chapel Hill.
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Orange County is the 10th county statewide to offer domestic violence victims the option of seeking a protective order from a judge through e-file and videoconferencing available at the Sheriff's Office and at the Compass Center in Chapel Hill.

Amber Keith-Drowns remembers helping a terrified woman hide several years ago when her husband showed up at the Orange County courthouse to stop her from getting a domestic-violence protective order.

“We saw her abuser pull into the parking lot here at the courthouse, and he was pacing around the courthouse, as well as the jail and the magistrate’s office,” said Keith-Drowns, the victim services coordinator at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.

“Luckily, the judge was willing to come down and have a little hearing with her here in my office,” Keith-Drowns said.

Meanwhile, deputies went out to talk with the man, who Keith-Drowns said was “ranting and raving” and “was irate looking for her.”

The woman was able to get out, and her husband went to prison on unrelated charges, she said.

Now, there’s a new, online option for domestic-violence victims who come to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office or to the Compass Center in Chapel Hill seeking help.

The new program lets people electronically file for an ex parte, or emergency, protective order, Orange County Clerk of Superior Court Mark Kleinschmidt and the Sheriff’s Office recently announced. A protection order restricts contact between an abuser and a victim or children. Violating the order can result in civil and criminal penalties.

Text-message confirmation

Keith-Drowns helped her first client navigate the new system Monday morning.

The woman filled out her complaint, filed the paperwork through a web-based state computer portal, and then was able to speak with a clerk and appear before a judge via video. The paperwork was entered directly into the state court system, where it was immediately available to court and law enforcement officials statewide.

When deputies deliver the order to the alleged abuser, the victim is notified via text message.

The ex parte order is good for 10 days, until a hearing can be held, said Cpl. K.J. Wagner said, a member of the department’s domestic-violence unit who works with Keith-Drowns.

“You have to give the other person a chance to tell their side of the story, and let a judge make a decision from there,” he said.

The program also creates a safe place where the person can get legal help and connect with a domestic-violence advocate who can steer them toward shelter and services.

‘More comforting feeling’

Last year, the Sheriff’s Office had nearly 200 protective orders filed, Keith-Drowns said. It expects more with e-filing because victims don’t have to come to the courthouse or face a courtroom full of people.

“It definitely has the potential to give a more comforting feeling to a process that is normally not so comforting,” Keith-Drowns said.

She and Wagner also see benefits for the officers charged with enforcing the orders.

Since protective orders are no longer being hand-delivered or mailed to other agencies and defendants, they will be delivered and go into enforcement faster, Keith-Drowns said. Also, an officer on a domestic violence call or who encounters a domestic situation will be able to pull up any order on a computer or mobile device, instead of driving back to the office to get the paperwork.

Obtaining a protective order is not taking criminal action against someone, although it can lead to criminal charges, Wagner said.

Alamance County was the first to implement electronic domestic violence protective order filing in 2013. Wake and Durham counties, respectively, started their programs in 2016 and 2017. Orange County is part of an expansion to 15 counties, according to the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.

Electronic filing is another step in a long-running state program that’s changing how criminal and civil courts around the state handle domestic violence cases. Another strategy paired a court programs specialist with a domestic violence advisory committee to write a domestic violence judicial guidebook for district court judges.

Whether someone has asked you for help or you sense someone is in distress, here are some general guidelines to help support possible victims of abuse, be it physical, emotional, sexual, psychological or financial.

Orange County has been making changes to how it handles domestic violence cases for decades, Wagner said. He noted a watershed case for Orange County was the domestic violence death of Dawn Jolly in 1989.

Multiple protective orders, criminal charges and well-meaning friends didn’t stop Randall Jolly from shooting his wife, Dawn, outside a Hillsborough daycare. That was a result of the “old-school mentality” at that time, Wagner said.

Orange County now has no tolerance for domestic violence, he said.

“This office is very pro-arrest. If there is a reason to take charges out on someone, then you take them out,” Wagner said. “If you allow the victim to take the charges out, then all the person [thinks is] I just have to sweet talk so-and-so and get her to drop the charges. You can sweet talk me all you want to; I’m not dropping the charges.”

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.