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Hennepin domestic-abuse victims find long waits for help in seeking protection orders

In late July, an advocate of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center (MIWRC) went with a client to the Hennepin County’s Domestic Abuse Service Center to help her file an order for protection. (The client had been a childhood sexual-abuse victim, and as an adult now was involved in a physically abusive relationship.)

They showed up early, but there were already 15 women with children ahead of them, waiting for similar help. The advocate waited with the client for about 90 minutes, then had to return to the office. The client called at 11:30 a.m. saying she would have to fill out her own order and wait for judges to return after lunch.

Looking at about a seven-hour wait, the client left without getting help, said MIWRC Executive Director Suzanne Koepplinger, who related the story. Three weeks later the woman was in the emergency room after her abuser brutally attacked her.

There is no guarantee that the order for protection would have prevented the assault, but it would have given her a better chance. The story verges on a worst-case scenario, but it illustrates concerns nonprofit groups have about court cuts to the Domestic Abuse Service Center.

District Court required to help clients
The Domestic Abuse Service Center includes city and county attorney staff and support from other public agencies. Court staff members help victims write and file temporary orders for protection (as well as harassment restraining orders). District Court is required by law to help clients, but the law is fuzzy on the details. (“The court shall provide simplified forms and clerical assistance to help with the writing and filing of a petition … .”)

Faced with state cuts, the court system cut $200,000 from the Domestic Abuse Service Center budget earlier this year. Court staff dropped from seven to five; one more cut is pending.

The cuts mean less assistance.

According to advocates, it takes victims a lot of resolve and courage to decide to leave an abusive relationship, and filing for an order for protection is a big first step. They are concerned that, faced with Service Center delays, some women will lose that nerve.

More chaos
The center used to let people make appointments. It wasn’t necessarily same-day service, but it was at least predictable. But that system wasn’t efficient; people miss appointments. The center now takes clients first-come, first served. It keeps people moving through. It also means less predictability and more sitting and waiting on busy days.

Marna Anderson, executive director of WATCH, a court-monitoring group, said volunteers and staff go to the Domestic Abuse Service Center waiting room once or twice a day. “It is a much more chaotic environment than it used to be,” she said. “It is not uncommon to have eight to 10 women, sometimes with their kids, waiting to see somebody.”

(I stopped by the center on three different days. Once there was one woman in the waiting room; once three adults and two children, and once 11 adults, mostly women, and four children.)

Anderson said women used to meet with a staff person who would help them sort out what was important to include in their petition. That has changed. “Women are really left on their own to write their own orders,” Anderson said. “They are not getting adequate service … and they used to.”

Shifting the burden
The cuts to the Domestic Abuse Service Center are one of several court cuts. According Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Russell Anderson’s March 7 letter, cuts have included: delaying conciliation court calendars; closing a satellite court in Washington County; terminating arbitration services in Hennepin County; closing public-service counters for a half day each week in three districts, and cutting family supervised visitation services in Hennepin County.

The Minnesota Judicial Council, the administrative governing body for the state’s trial and appellate courts, voted Sept. 18 to submit a $54 million request for additional funding for the fiscal year 2010-2011 biennium, a media release said. Council leaders said the money is needed “to avoid deep staff cuts that will lead to reduction of public services, long delays in case processing,” and other problems.

“If the courts fail to secure additional funding for the next two years, an estimated 261 additional positions would have to be cut. Any reductions in the Judicial Branch budget would result in even deeper staff cuts. The Judicial Branch currently has about 2,900 employees, 315 judges, and processes more than two million cases each year,” the release said.

This year’s cuts to the Domestic Abuse Service Center show how state budget cuts fall on courts and court cuts fall on nonprofit groups and the people they serve.

In August, 242 people left before getting help
Vicki Albu, an administrative manager in the Fourth Judicial District Court, said the number of center turn-aways is growing and the court is concerned and tracking data. In August, 301 customers got orders written at the Service Center (141 protection orders, 160 harassment restraining orders). Another 242 customers left before getting help.

Some might have come back another day. Others might have tried a nonprofit agency. Still others might have given up. That part isn’t known.

Some nonprofits have staff that help abuse victims write protection orders and get them filed. Susan Neis, executive director of Bloomington-based Cornerstone, said there is “an unspoken expectation” that nonprofit programs would just pick up the slack from court cuts.

The Domestic Abuse Project is getting some of the overflow, said Executive Director Carol Arthur.

DAP focuses on criminal court. It follows up on all domestic-assault reports in the city and asks victims about their safety needs. It also has a City Hall office, one block from the Domestic Abuse Service Center. Staff members help victims write orders for protection, and requests for help are up since the court cuts. DAP is getting about four or five more requests each week, or double its previous volume.

Arthur related the story of a woman who showed up at DAP recently with two small children. The woman had gone to the Domestic Abuse Service Center that morning and got number 29. Staff announced around noon that people with numbers above 28 would probably not get help that day. They gave out names of nonprofit agencies that could help.

WATCH’s Anderson finds irony here.

Before, the court staff didn’t want community advocates writing orders, she said. It wanted District Court staff writing orders. Now, the comment is often, “Why can’t the advocates write the orders?” she said. “It has been a real flip.”

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