2014 GCN AWARDS
County speeds protective orders for victims of domestic violence
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Sep 26, 2014
Before June 2013, victims of domestic violence in Alamance County, N.C., had trouble securing protective orders. Women and children had to run a gauntlet to secure an order, and the coordination of services among enforcement agencies added delays. Plus, the whole process took so long some victims had to forego services just to make it to the county seat to get their order.
Project at a glance
Project: Alamance County Electronic Protective Order System
Office: Alamance County Management Information Systems and the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts
Technology used: Internet access, virtual-private networks, local- and wireless-area networks and commercial software for platform and database
Time To Implementation: Two years
Before:Victims of domestic violence in the county had to visit four government offices to obtain protective orders, making it unlikely that they would return to the Family Justice Center for the services they needed, such as Legal Aid and counseling.
After: EPOS halved the time it takes officials to issue protective orders, and victims never have to leave FJC while they wait for a judge’s decision. Victims can also testify via webcam privately to a judge rather than in front of a court.
The Electronic Protective Order System (EPOS) changed that.
Initiated at the county’s Family Justice Center (FJC), EPOS has halved the 12-hour wait it took to get a protective order by automating the process and enabling victims to remain at one location – FJC – rather than visit four separate offices. What’s more, it adds privacy by letting victims tell their stories to judges via webcam instead of in a public courtroom. Within six months of EPOS’ use, only 6 percent of victims failed to follow through with the protective order process, compared to 12 percent before the system existed.
Since the launch of the system, referrals from the center to counseling and assistance services have doubled, and referrals to Legal Aid have tripled.
“It has been a game changer for the Family Justice Center and for victims in Alamance County,” said Cindy Brady, director of FJC in Burlington, N.C. “There were times before where because of the journey that the victims had to take, they were being stalked by their abuser.”
The system works like this: Victims submit a complaint in their own writing to an advocate at the center. The advocate enters the information into EPOS and an email goes to the Clerk of Court’s Office. There, complaint documents are processed and sent electronically to the district court judge, who gets an email alert about a pending protective order. The judge hears the victim, who is still at FJC, via videoconference. If the judge accepts the order, it is transmitted to the FJC, where the advocate prints a copy for the victim.
The sheriff’s department also gets an electronic version so that all deputies have a copy of the protective order on their laptops. They can print and serve it immediately, and they can refer to it should a violation be called in. This also creates a log of when the defendant received the order and triggers a notification via text message or email to the victim so he or she knows what steps to take next.
More than 150 protective orders have been applied for electronically since the $883,074 system went live 15 months ago.
“Other sites may have a component of this technology,” Brady said. “As far as I know, no other area has the critical component to the technology, which is that it’s start-to-finish automated electronic availability for people to see.”
EPOS runs on software developed jointly by Alamance County Management Information Systems, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and an AOC-chosen vendor that designed and built the software platform. AOC also chose a vendor to create the databases and handle security requirements.
Other advising partners on the project included the district court chief judge for Judicial District 15A, the county Clerk of Court, county Sheriff's Department, Family Justice Center and County MIS Department. Collectively, this group devoted about 15,000 hours to the project from 2011 through 2013 – time over and above their regular job requirements.
Representatives from the departments described their roles in the protective order process, and a developer translated them into technology, Brady said.
“There were times when everybody needed to regroup and be on the same page to move forward, but for a project of this scope, it was pretty painless,” she said.
Although officials spend less time on the order process using EPOS, FJC advocates are spending more time with victims now that they no longer have to leave the center to secure the order. That’s how it should be, Brady said.
“We started out on this project based on the victim being able to stay here and get their protective order and that contributes to the mission of the Family Justice Center,” she said.
Another perk of EPOS: Its potential for replication. Any of North Carolina’s other 99 counties or even those in other states could easily adopt the same technology.