Community Health & Wellness Police & Fire

Domestic violence: Navigating the legal system

Posted on September 14th, 2023 By:

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in our four-part series on services for victims of abuse and violence in Pierce County. Previous stories include:

Warning: This story includes descriptions of violence and abuse. 

Domestic abuse can encompass verbal, emotional, or physical violence. Or all three.

Engaging with the legal system as a victim of domestic abuse can be scary, and many avoid calling for help at all. But when police respond to a domestic violence incident, laws dictate what happens, depending on the timeframe.

If the crime happened within four hours of the call to law enforcement, officers are required to take the offender to jail, said Gig Harbor Police Chief Kelly Busey.

“Often it’s not even the involved parties who call,” Busey said. “We respond with at least two officers, because we’ve learned that these situations are emotionally charged at times. We separate the parties, and see what the potential for violence is, or if there has been violence. If so, we try to corroborate that with witness accounts, then determine who the primary aggressor is.”

For incidents that occurred more than four hours ago, officers can use their discretion to decide if someone should be arrested. If police make an arrest, they turn over the facts they collected to the prosecutor’s office. Prosecutors decide whether to charge them. “Booking doesn’t mean charges will be filed,” Busey noted.

More than making an arrest

Making an arrest isn’t the only role police play in a domestic abuse call. Officers work with victims to develop a safety plan and encourage them to go somewhere the abuser won’t find them. Victims can then access resources such as the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center in Tacoma or the other organizations that help with various needs. Victims can also file for a protection order online, Busey said.

The Gig Harbor Police Department works with a benevolent fund for crime victims that helps with the cost of temporary shelter, Busey said. In the cases of extreme risk — when a violent person may return and commit a significant act of violence — he said that officers can petition for an emergency protection order.

“We will petition on behalf of that person, wake up a judge in the middle of the night, and get the perpetrator served,” he said. “That doesn’t provide physical security, but what it does is enable us to instantly arrest for violation of that order, and we don’t have to build a second case.”

Andrea Saunders, managing attorney of the Family Safety Project at Tacoma Pro Bono, and Communications Director Laurie Davenport discuss outreach plans in the Tacoma Pro Bono office. Photo by Marsha Hart

Victims of felonies are assigned an advocate, he said. For misdemeanor cases, officers provide the victim with resources and steer them toward the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center.

Child victims

For sexual assault victims under the age of 16 or of limited mental capacity, the Children’s Advocacy Center at Mary Bridge Hospital conducts a forensic interview. The center has a team of mental health providers, forensic interviewers, advocates, social workers and medical staff. 

For victims older than 16, an officer conducts the interview. They may collect follow-up statements as the victim’s memory becomes clearer, he said.

Nobody typically represents victims of felonies in court. A prosecutor, who represents the state, handles the case. Victims or survivors of domestic violence who decide to report the abuse and access the legal system may qualify for free services through nonprofits that provide limited legal guidance.

Legal resources

For those who need legal representation, the Northwest Justice Project and Tacoma Pro Bono provide attorneys who represent clients in child custody cases involving domestic violence. They can also help victims file for protection orders and represent them in family law cases.

Though Laurie Davenport is the communications director for Tacoma Pro Bono, she began working with the organization as an attorney in 2001. At that time she was its only attorney and worked half time. Since then the organization has changed, and grown.

Tacoma Pro Bono now includes a dozen attorneys who work in housing, and the Family Safety Project, which provides outreach with legal aid volunteers and advocates. The state provides funding for the program through the civil legal aid, and the Victims of Crime Act, federal money that the Justice Department distributes to each state, Davenport said.

And despite the name, it’s not just for Tacoma. The organization provides outreach to rural communities as well, including Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula.

“We started going out to communities during the pandemic,” Davenport said. “We went out with the rental assistance people, and it stuck, because some areas have a poor transportation system, and poor Internet. It’s important to meet people where they are. Sometimes they feel they can come talk, and it may be the first time that they talk about their situation.”

Complex needs

Often, the needs of domestic violence victims overlap, making the job of representing them complex, she said.

“One thing we know about domestic violence work is that it really requires a team to serve the clients,” said Andrea Saunders, managing attorney for the Family Safety Project team at Tacoma Pro Bono.

Saunders said the Family Safety Project team began last year in an effort to address the increased need for consistent legal representation. The team includes one managing attorney, a paralegal, two staff attorneys, and one limited license legal technician, licensed to provide limited services. Previously, volunteers provided many of those functions. They still play an important role, she said.

“If we represent someone in a protection order, it is a collaborative relationship with the client, and our goal is to support them. But at the end of the day the decisions are theirs,” she said.

Tacoma Pro Bono partners with the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center for direct referrals, Saunders said.

Trauma and the legal system

Navigating the legal system can be overwhelming for anyone. For someone who has experienced a trauma, those feelings can be amplified. That’s why Saunders said it is important for anyone ready to engage with the system to gather their support group.

“Who are the people around you who can help support you? Faith leaders, family members, friends, community advocates. Because you’re going to need them,” she said. 

Davenport said the Family Safety Project sees thousands of clients each year. Many more need services, but the team triages cases to try to determine which ones they will take. The need far outweighs the human ability to help everyone who doesn’t have the means to hire an attorney. 

“People assume everyone has access to legal representation, but they don’t. People end up forced back into a situation with the abuser, because they don’t have access to money, or they have kids, and all of that can be resolved in court, if you can get into court to get temporary orders (for child support, or spousal maintenance) and divorce is a year and half thing,”  Davenport said. “Sixty percent of what we do is family law, and a large part of that is domestic violence.”

Empowering people

The cycle of abuse is complex, and Saunders said it takes a real emotional toll.

“To Pierce County’s credit, they know that the work that all of these agencies is doing is really important, and that the need and services available is difficult to quantify,” Saunders said. “So, the county has contracted with the Battered Women’s Justice Project (a national resource) to study and synthesize what is and isn’t available in Pierce County.”

For those who can, they said the best thing to do is start researching online, and the best place for that is the library. 

“It’s good for people to learn how to do some of it for themselves,” Davenport said. “It’s empowering for people. Figure out your local library, where you can print, and scan.”

If you or someone you know has been the victim of domestic violence, contact the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center at 253-798-4166, or