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Seeking safety, victims of domestic violence go to court. But it’s not that simple.

Two women come before a judge seeking domestic violence protection orders. In one case, a woman alleges that her abuser is trying to get possession of the house. In the other, a woman claims that her partner has physically harmed her.  The judge denies a domestic violence protection order to the first woman but grants one to the second. 

The first woman is killed by her abuser. The second woman’s allegations turn out to be false.  

“I think I used to keep those [two complaints] on my wall because I think that you have to remember your gut instinct isn’t always your right instinct,” says Durham County Judge Nancy Gordon, who heard the two cases at a judge’s training in North Carolina in 2007. 

Domestic violence protection orders, known as a DVPO or 50B order, per the legal statute that created them, are the court’s way of requiring perpetrators of domestic violence to stay away from victims or face arrest. But obtaining an order is fraught with complications. 

Judges, prone to their own biases, act fallible. Nervous complainants sometimes file and withdraw their request several times. Victims must advocate for themselves despite frequently lacking legal experience. 

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Durham County courts have seen an influx of domestic violence cases, judges and prosecutors say. Even before the pandemic, increasingly sophisticated and discreet tracking technology made it easier for abusers to stalk their victims.

In 2020 North Carolina saw 61 homicides by intimate partners and 45 so far in 2021, according to the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“They all keep you awake at night,” says Gordon, referring to protective order cases. A stylish white streak of hair frames the face of the judge, first elected to the bench in North Carolina in 2006.

“If something is alleged and you don’t give somebody an ex parte order” — a temporary protective measure — “you look in the — I look — in the newspapers.” 

‘A drastic remedy’

A DVPO results from a civil filing by the victim. At the first hearing, the judge decides whether the defendant has committed an act of domestic violence based on what the plaintiff brings to the judge. The judge may issue an ex parte order, valid until the next hearing.

“That’s a pretty drastic remedy, “ Gordon says. “You could be kicking somebody out of their house. Where are they going to go? It’s Covid, so you have to think about what it is you’re doing.”

The plight of victims is often dramatic. But the bureaucratic grind of court obscures that turmoil. 

In the breezy, dimly lit Courtroom 5A, otherwise known as Durham County’s domestic violence court, Judge Doretta Walker asks each plaintiff, “Is everything in your complaint true?” 

“He comes over to my house. I don’t want him to get close to my children because he is very aggressive,” responds one woman in a leopard-print cardigan and low-rise pink pants. 

The woman uses an interpreter. The two huddle shoulder to shoulder at the corner of the bench far across the courtroom from Walker. 

“Anything else?” the judge asks.

“He tries to come looking for me. I don’t want him to get close to me.”

Walker grants the woman an ex parte order. 

To qualify under Chapter 50B, plaintiffs must show that someone currently or previously in their household has threatened, harassed, or actually injured them or their child.

On another recent afternoon in Courtroom 5A, a young woman dressed casually in jeans stands straight as a board before Gordon. Her round belly pushes against her burgundy T-shirt; she has two children and another is on the way. 

She explains to Gordon that her former roommate’s behavior drove her to call the police four times. The two once lived together, but the woman wants the man gone permanently from her apartment.

Each time, she says, the police told her that she must evict him.. 

His name is not on the lease, so Gordon advises the woman to, “keep a copy of the lease in the apartment and on you.” 

Before deciding whether to approve an ex parte order, Gordon also inquires about who can get the children from school. The woman says she has already taken the man’s name off the pickup list at her kids’ Early Head Start program. 

Gordon grants the order. 

‘What good would this do…?’

After an ex parte hearing,  both plaintiff and defendant — the alleged abuser — are expected to show up in court again together, usually within 10 days.

During the second hearing,  the defendant makes clear whether they’ll consent to the order. If the defendant does not agree to the DVPO, the judge will hold a trial to decide whether to keep the order in place. 

In Durham County District Court, plaintiffs frequently fail to show up for this second hearing. Often judges then dismiss the case. 

Judge James Hill says he is sympathetic to the plight of domestic violence victims. In fact, it has afflicted at least one member of his family. That relative entered and withdrew “three or four orders,” Hill says, and then finally followed through. 

But he dismisses cases when victims do not show. One day recently in his courtroom after a day of cases, Hill sat in his chair and waved an imaginary piece of paper, representing a protective order.  What good would this do against someone with a weapon, he asked.  

“Until the victim decides they want to do something, there’s not a whole lot we can do,” said Hill, 71, a retired jurist who now fills in as a substitute judge throughout the state. 

Many victims agree.

Melanie, a Triangle resident, says that she has a protective order out against her abuser. Still, she had to move from two different shelters because he found her.  

Now she also has a 6-month-old son to protect. The 9th Street Journal is not fully identifying her for her safety. 

“So honestly, the order of protection isn’t really helpful,” Melanie wrote in a Facebook message. “They go to court [and] get right out, especially if they have money, power, and resources.”

There are other incentives for individuals to seek a protective order.  To get a divorce in North Carolina, for example, a couple must be separated for one year, and to be considered separated, they cannot live together. A DVPO can force a spouse out of the residence, Gordon says.

In other words, the courts can be a theater to work out personal relationships.

“Unlike 100 years ago, they don’t send you to the church to work it out. They send you to the courts,” says Gordon, a family law attorney for more than two decades before being elected to the Durham County District Court. 

Meanwhile, Melanie tries to get herself back on her feet. She has reached out to a local mutual aid group asking for financial support. She says she does not want to be a burden to the community. 

 “It’s hard starting over, especially with a baby,” Melanie says.

PHOTO ABOVE: Durham County Judge Nancy Gordon says protective order cases “all keep you awake at night.” Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.