Residents in every county in Maryland can obtain rapid legal protection from an abusive intimate partner, no matter what time or day it is. It wasn’t always this way. Maryland court administrators deserve credit for acknowledging the need to make legal protection available evenings and weekends when courts are closed. Three Commissioner Stations in Montgomery County provide victims with a way to file for protection outside of regular business hours, and to ensure they can quickly get the court’s help to vacate a dangerous partner from the premises and ban contact.
Over the last decade, more and more victims have taken advantage of the opportunity to file at Commissioner Stations. In fact, almost half of all victims in Montgomery County and statewide now file first for an Interim Order. That makes it critical that the same critical services currently provided to victims at courthouses are also available in Commissioner Stations for the other half of victims.
Court Watch found in a recent study that domestic violence victims who file their protective orders for legal protection at a Commissioner Station, when courts are closed, are slightly less likely to obtain a final protective order (45% compared with 50% for victims who filed at court) and are more likely to drop their case (45% to 39%). We think the reason a smaller percentage of victims who file at Commissioner Stations ultimately obtain final protective orders is the lack of victim advocates.
Victim advocates are often the first person that a victim tells about their abuse; the relief that comes with an advocate saying “I believe you,” and “there are people that want to help you,” is incalculable. Although victims are referred to the Family Justice Center after their Interim Order is reviewed by a judge, many victims may have already decided to drop their order and never show up at court because they are too anxious or fearful, didn’t understand the court forms, don’t have the benefit of a court companion, or are overwhelmed because they don’t know anything about what the upcoming process entails.
Court Watch is exploring with lead judges and the Governor’s Office of Crime and Crime Prevention the possibility of creating a statewide phone line that people filing protective order petitions at Commissioner Stations could use to get their questions answered by an advocate. In-person advocates are particularly needed at the Rockville and Silver Spring Commissioner Stations Friday nights, and all day and evening Saturdays. In addition to helping victims file protective orders, advocates can provide valuable help by photographing injuries and helping victims with criminal complaints when they are necessary.