Many domestic violence victims feel like their worlds have been shattered.
A simple kiosk in Pierce County, Wash., empowers those victims to take action.
Since January, a kiosk in Gig Harbor, Wash.'s City Hall containing an Internet-enabled throwaway computer has given approximately 35 domestic violence victims quick and safe access to the criminal justice system.
Victims use the device to request and receive temporary restraining orders against perpetrators of violence, usually within the day.
The Long Road
Previously victims drove as long as three hours to the main county building in Tacoma, Wash. -- the only place in the county that issued protection orders.
"Our county is 1,800 square miles," said Craig Roberts, Pierce County's domestic violence coordinator. "We have a lot of people in outlying areas toward Mt. Rainier who basically have to saddle up the horses and ride three days to get down here."
Victims can now take action when fear and the thought of driving through heavy traffic or construction dissuade them from getting help.
"We know for victims of domestic violence, a lot of times isolation is used to keep them from getting access to services," Roberts said. "To leave your wife home on a five-acre spread way out -- where the nearest neighbor may be five miles away -- without a vehicle, without a phone, makes it tough."
So far, all requested petitions have been granted, and the county assures the kiosk won't be abused. Before implementation, there was concern about frivolous use of the process, but that hasn't happened, Roberts said.
"That's why we decided to make sure we had it in the right location, and not set up in the middle of the mall where you can just walk up, then go," he said, adding that the kiosk is in constant sight of either a county court clerk or another advocate from the community who assists victims in requesting an order, aids and comforts the victim, and assures the process isn't abused, Roberts said.
"By having the advocate there who can talk to you about what's going on, and other services you need along with the protection order, can kind of intimidate those who aren't necessarily entitled to the order from going through the process," he said.
To receive a protection order, the victim must complete an affidavit under oath describing what has occurred. Washington state law requires victims to show acts or threats of physical violence, submit ID and undergo a background check on the spot. A background check also is done on alleged perpetrators.
It takes anywhere from 10 minutes to three hours to enter all required information into the kiosk, though most victims finish in about 30 minutes, Roberts said.
The completed form is submitted automatically to the Tacoma office, which the advocate also contacts so the office expects the request. The form is reviewed to make sure it includes the appropriate data, then it's either filed or returned to the kiosk with correction instructions.
"If [the victims] have been a bit vague in their statement as to what happened, we can reject it back to the kiosk with a message and pointers on where to be more specific," Roberts said. "Then they can sit down, make those changes and resubmit it."
Once the appropriate data is added and the form is accepted, it is printed out and physically taken to the court commissioner, who either rejects it or grants a restraining order. All the while, the victim and advocate can track the order's status at the kiosk. The process usually is completed on the same day.
Delays typically result from the commissioner addressing calendared cases before the order.
"The way we've worked out the process is when the court personnel at Gig Harbor submit a request, they give us a call, and we sit and talk to them as we're looking at it," Roberts said.
Both the kiosk and the advocate's presence may eliminate some fear and hesitancy, Roberts said, because the process is more personal and thorough.
In most domestic violence situations, police advise victims to go to the courthouse to get a protective order.
"They would wander in here, talk to a clerk who would sit them down, give them some paperwork and show them how to fill it out," Roberts said. "They'd fill it out by hand."
The new situation gives the victim someone to help and support them through the process, he continued. "Even pass them along to a community agency that can walk them through the process and provide them other resources, whether they need to find a place to stay or get clothes for their children or whatever the case may be."
Initially the motivation to install the kiosk was the distance between Gig Harbor and the office that could serve a protection order, but Roberts said such a kiosk could be useful anywhere, even in King County, Wash., where 40 to 50 courts grant orders.
"One of the benefits is you've got a battered women's shelter that may be only a few blocks from the courthouse, and security is an issue," he said. "It's an issue actually getting the victim there so they can electronically petition from that secure location."
The next plan, stage II, is to add more kiosks in the county. Roberts called stage I the low-tech version -- just getting it up and running. "When they submit a petition we actually print it out and walk everything into court."
Stage II, it is hoped, will automate the whole process, including notification to the law enforcement agency nearest the victim by using county GIS capabilities. With GIS, officials would locate the law enforcement office nearest the victim's address, and automatically notify those authorities, most likely via e-mail.
"We're looking toward going with cable modems with Internet access to circumvent having to hook up to someone else's network," Roberts said, adding that an ultimate goal is providing local Army bases with kiosks.
"It will take programming time and more throwaway computers, but it's one of the high priorities," Roberts said. "We'll use personnel from our office to train with law enforcement and use what we've budgeted for programming time."