Domestic law: Protection orders help families fight against abuse
by Rebecca Walker
Staff Writer
Nov 01, 2009 | 4087 views |  1 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This woman has a protection order due to abuse. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
This woman has a protection order due to abuse. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
Ask Charma Berdeaux to describe how her last relationship began, and a sheepish grin spreads across her face.

"It was awesome," she says, batting her eyelids. "He was the nicest guy, real loving and caring."

Then she shakes her head and says, "But that's how they all start out — being the dream guy."

Shortly after their six-month anniversary, Berdeaux's boyfriend moved in with her. That's when things began to change.

"He wanted to know where I was at all times. He gave me his own personal cell phone to use so he could track my calls and wouldn't let me use mine anymore," she said. "There were serious control issues."

Ironically, Berdeaux worked for 2nd Chance, a local domestic violence advocacy group that serves Calhoun, Cleburne, Etowah and Talladega counties. She told her boyfriend that his controlling actions toward her were on "the list."

The list, generally known in the counseling profession, includes warning signs of an abusive partner, such as a rush toward a serious relationship or marriage, isolating the victim from family and friends and controlling the victim's finances and daily actions.

"I couldn't go anywhere alone. He said he didn't want me on the roads by myself, but really he just wanted to control where I went and who I saw.

"I tried to educate him. I'd point out that his actions were on the list. And he'd get mad and say, 'Everything I do is on that G-D list!'" Berdeaux said.

She said the controlling behavior evolved into physical altercations. When she sought help from his mother, the violence escalated.

"The last time was pretty intense," she said with a gulp.

So Berdeaux sought help through a court-issued protection order, like 438 other Calhoun County residents did between January and September of this year.

Through the third quarter of this year 280 protection orders were granted. In 2007 and 2008 combined, just more than 1,200 were requested, and of those, nearly 850 were granted. Approximately two orders a day are presented to Calhoun County circuit court judges for consideration.

Brenda Stedham, presiding judge of the Family Court of Calhoun and Cleburne counties, said that so many people are granted protection orders because people are becoming more aware of their power.

"It's positive because it gives rules to a situation where no rules existed before. It sets boundaries for behaviors," Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson said. "PFAs make behavior that's not typically criminal under normal conditions become a crime."

Protection orders are designed to prevent violent or threatening acts, harassment, contact or communication with a victim who claims to feel threatened by the person. Through this process, a judge can order a person to stay clear of a victim's home, school or workplace.

"It has extraordinary powers," said District Court Judge Laura Phillips, who rules in family court for Calhoun County. "And it helps limit the reasons why a woman or man will stay in a domestic violence relationship."

To the fullest extent of the law

Protection orders in Alabama were created by the 1981 Protection from Abuse Act, found in section 30-5-11 of the Alabama Code.

They're designed to:

• protect victims to the fullest extent of the law

• stop all contact between victims and perpetrators

• prevent future abuse

• enforce punishment for those who violate protection orders.

Lorri Sawyer, a victim service officer for the Calhoun County District Attorney's office, is the first stop for those looking for protection from abuse.

Threats can be direct or can simply be a threatening gesture, such as making a shooting gesture with the thumb and forefinger while driving past a victim's house, Sawyer said.

Additional criteria for obtaining a protection order involve the relationship of the perpetrator to the victim.

"The two must be related by blood, have a child in common, live together or have been married in the past," Sawyer said.

Earlier this year, two bills were introduced to the Alabama Legislature to amend the definition of a relationship in which a protection order can be obtained. The bills would have expanded the boundaries for who can get a protection order, adding dating relationships to the list. Backing the bills were Democrats Jeffrey McLaughlin of Guntersville, Craig Ford of Gadsden, Merika Coleman of Birmingham, and Laura Hall of Huntsville, plus Republican Greg Canfield of Vestavia Hills.

However, final votes were not taken before the end of the regular legislative session, killing the bills.

"A cycle of control and power"

Usually when people hear the phrase "domestic violence," they picture battered women and children. But statistics show that women and children aren't the only ones seeking protection from domestic violence situations.

"It's pretty common to see men come in and file for a PFA. You'd be shocked at the number," Phillips said. "Usually with domestic violence you think of divorce situations, but I'm now seeing mothers getting protection orders against sons or daughters, or two brothers filing one against each other.

"We've got grown men who are threatened or assaulted by a former spouse or soon-to-be former spouse. I've even seen grown children seek protection orders against a parent."

In the first three quarters of 2009, 79 men requested protection orders in Calhoun County. In 2007 and 2009, those numbers were 91 and 130, respectively.

Phillips said that when men file for protection orders, it's generally related to family issues. The majority of protection orders, however, are filed between intimate partners, which are defined as spouses, former spouses, or those who have lived together.

When victims come to Sawyer, she said she hears their story before moving on to paperwork.

"I just listen, and sometimes it takes a long time," she said. "Sadly, there's often a history of abuse."

A protection order can arrange for the perpetrator to be removed from the home, or for a vehicle to be provided to the victim.

"Every week I see someone who genuinely has nowhere else to go," Sawyer said. "Sometimes they're married and they often don't work, because their husband won't let them, and they have no money of their own. They're stuck in a cycle of control and power."

Issuance of a protection order also revokes a defendant's gun license, and all firearms belonging to the defendant are seized for the term of the order, usually a year.

That provision helped put Berdeaux at ease after the court issued the order against her boyfriend.

"I knew once he was served (with the papers), he would be angry," she said. "He had an arsenal of guns, so I was glad his license was revoked for a year."

For a protection order to be valid, the order must be served to the defendant by law enforcement. Sawyer said the turnaround for approved orders is usually within 24 hours. A judge's signature is usually on the order by that afternoon or the next morning, she said.

Berdeaux, who works as 2nd Chance's outreach coordinator, said anyone who files for a protection order should first have a safety plan in place.

"Know where you're going to go to protect yourself immediately after the order is served," she said.

Appeal and enforcement

A defendant can appeal a protection order to the judge who issued it.

"If someone is lying (to me), the judge will determine that at the hearing," Sawyer said. "I'd rather err on the side of offering help instead of judging someone seeking it."

Phillips said she receives objections to protection orders about 25 percent of the time, but rarely from defendants who say the victim's claims are untrue.

Police can enforce the orders as soon as they're issued, and violators can be charged with contempt of court, a misdemeanor.

"PFAs are more of a prevention, not an intervention or crisis tool. They exist to hopefully prevent anything from erupting in the immediate future," she said. Stedham said protection orders are a more effective tool than previously existing methods to protect victims of abuse.

Prior to protection orders, a victim's only course of action was to pay a lawyer to file a restraining order, which can only be enforced in court, Stedham said. Protection orders, on the contrary, are free to the victims. They are also much more expedient than previous options.

Amerson agrees that though other methods of protection exist, for situations of domestic abuse a protection order is the way to go.

"For example, you can get a warrant, but that's a high bar to jump over," he said. "You'd have to get a lot of reports and must prove a pattern of abuse. For a protection order, there's no pattern to prove."

Phillips calls the previously reactive techniques for dealing with abuse "the worst way to have access to the justice system."

"A PFA starts drawing boundaries and reduces opportunities for situations to erupt," she said. "Of course, I tell victims this piece of paper is not bulletproof.

"But it's hard to prove a negative. I don't know how many lives PFAs may have saved. It's definitely a step in the right direction."

Punishment vs. help

Though some victims who file for protection orders change their minds down the road, revoking an order is not as simple as kissing and making up, Sawyer said.

Phillips said she is reluctant to revoke protection orders.

"I refuse to vacate an order. I may allow contact for counseling, but not unless I see an effort by the perpetrator for positive intervention," she said.

Sawyer said a 16-week "perpetrator intervention" course known as S.A.F.E. (Stop Abuse for Everyone) exists for those wanting to work through their abusive tendencies. Some abuse perpetrators are court-ordered to the program.

"This program is not meant to punish; it's meant to help people," Sawyer said.

She said those who decide to drop their protection order must file a motion to withdraw it, but that it's difficult for a victim and abuser to work out their situation when they aren't allowed to be near one another.

Berdeaux, who met her abusive boyfriend while he was doing some work for 2nd Chance, began working for the organization after her sister was shot and killed in Coosa County while trying to escape a domestic violence relationship.

"That's why I kept telling my boyfriend I would hold him accountable," she said. "He would say I would never do anything about it because I would lose my job at 2nd Chance if they knew he was being abusive. He was wrong."

Berdeaux said her protection order has worked, and that if her boyfriend approaches her after the one-year statute of the protection order, she'll take further action.

"I'm pretty sure that if I hadn't gotten a protection order, my three teenage boys would have tried to intervene, and it would have gotten really bad. I tried to shield them from what was going on, but it wasn't until the breaking point that they knew the full extent."

She and Sawyer are just happy to help provide ways that didn't exist before for victims to protect themselves.

"I feel like what I am able to do from a safety standpoint is give people hope and say 'There's this here to help you," Sawyer said. "It's serious. It's people's lives we're dealing with."
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