Charlotte found herself in a hospital bed with bruises around her neck — broken blood vessels courtesy of a violent choking from her boyfriend.
The injuries weren’t his initial act of physical abuse, just the first to hospitalize her.
She was freshly discharged when Charlotte filed for an emergency protective order. But because she didn’t show up for the required court date two weeks later, the matter was dropped. Why did she stay? For a mother, it’s not easy to leave an abusive relationship — for more reasons than wanting to keep her family intact.
Charlotte was mired in a home life that put her at the highest level of risk for death, according to her lethality assessment, the documented measure of how dangerous a domestic violence situation is. But she realized that shaking the cycle of violence, a huge challenge itself, is just one of a myriad of impediments to obtaining a final protective order.
Data suggest recent improvements to Tulsa County’s civil protective order process may be helping others like Charlotte enter and navigate a complex system that often is intimidating, particularly while enduring abuse. The number of final protective orders filed in Tulsa County doubled from 2015 to 2016. The 2017 rate is on pace through August to nearly double again.
Emergency protective orders, the first step toward obtaining a final protective order, aren’t included in the data. Emergency orders must be renewed every two weeks until the defendant can be served, making it clear that the permanence of a final protective order is worth the effort it takes.
The number of final protective orders spiked only two months after a comprehensive assessment of the county’s protective order mechanisms was published in August 2016. That spike perhaps is evidence that immediate reforms led to an easier and more efficient path for victims to pursue permanent protection.
Suzanne Stewart, executive director of the Family Safety Center, compiled the protective order process assessment. A particularly heinous Tulsa case illustrating the system’s failures prompted a family court judge to ask for the review and recommendations how agencies could improve the process.
Stewart credits the sharp rise in final protective orders to better tracking of domestic cases through the system and working with litigants, attorneys, judges and law enforcement because of gaps identified by the report.
Specifically, Stewart noted an emphasis in FSC advocates helping victims properly fill out requests for a protective order in a detailed manner to have the best shot at garnering a judge’s approval.
FSC is housed within the same building as the Tulsa Police Department headquarters. Both are adjacent to the courthouse.
“I think that has helped us all across the way,” Stewart said.
‘There’s still nightmares’
Charlotte, 30, chose an alias during her recent interview with the Tulsa World to shield herself from an ex-boyfriend who she says still violates her final protective order.
Once she decided to obtain a protective order and keep it, she said it took 11 violations before a warrant was issued for her ex-boyfriend’s arrest. He ultimately was prosecuted for disturbing the peace and received probation.
“There’s still nightmares and weird feelings and a lot of fear,” Charlotte said. “We still have to have a safety plan even though it’s been a few years.
“You don’t get to just let your guard down. My kids have to know you can’t just run up to your dad. It’s not safe.”
Charlotte described the difficulties in extricating herself and her children from the “blurred lines” of an abusive relationship that most certainly didn’t begin that way.
The downward spiral began with mean words. One day, after a year or so together, he pushed her down. He cried and promised it would never happen again.
“I definitely did not, the first that it ever happened, I did not anticipate it ever ending up as bad as it did,” she said. “He was very sorry and everything.”
Charlotte described feeling as if officers viewed her as a disgruntled ex-girlfriend. There were instances of abuse she didn’t report or try to press charges on for lack of faith in the system.
She said officers would tell her, “Well, if we take him to jail now it will ruin his life.” Or when she defended herself from attacks she would be labeled a “mutual combatant” and told, “If I take him to jail, I have to take you to jail, too.”
In Tulsa, the number of felony and misdemeanor cases filed for violations of final protective orders is on pace to be the most since 2012.
A protective order doesn’t just create a paper trail detailing domestic violence. It’s a court document that’s enforceable by officers. It also can bring with it some level of peace of mind or comfort for a victim.
But it isn’t a force field or shield.
Tulsa County Deputy Jay Estes said protective orders do deter a good number of people, but victims shouldn’t become complacent.
“Law-abiding citizens get a protective order (against them), and they follow it — they don’t want to get in trouble,” said Estes, a supervisor of the Sheriff’s Office civil service unit. “It’s the ones that don’t have respect for anybody or law enforcement. They’re the ones who could care less if they have a piece of paper served on them or not.”
Even if many defendants abide by protective orders, investigating those who do violate them can be a frustrating exercise and an emotional weight.
So many allegations are put on Tulsa Police Cpl. Heather Weakley’s desk each day that her Family Violence Unit has no choice but to prioritize them like triage in an emergency room.
For example, there is a lone report of a violation via a text message that reads, “I’m sorry.” That case will be suspended, Weakley said.
Yes, no doubt it’s a violation. But unless the victim really pursues the allegation, the claim likely won’t make it to prosecutors, she said.
“It’s hard because we have that pressure on our shoulders if we decide, ‘No, we’re not going to work this case; we’re going to suspend it,’ and then something happens. Anytime there’s a homicide ... and it’s domestic-related, that’s the first thing we do when we come in: Do we have any open cases with the victim? Has the victim been over here? Has the victim ever filed a protective order against the suspect?
“We follow up on that because that’s a heavy burden to bear on our shoulders. But we have to decide which cases take precedence and which don’t.”
For cases that are investigated, corroborating evidence is key. Is there an independent witness to the violation? Is it enshrined in a text or voice message? Does video of it exist?
Sometimes many violations pile up over time as investigators work with prosecutors to try and prove a case.
Kenneth Elmore, a Tulsa County prosecutor, said social media and “burner phones” allow abusers to harass or stalk their victims in ways that are difficult to track. Elmore, director of the Special Victims Unit, pointed to a case of a woman who repeatedly sent threatening and disturbing text messages to her ex-boyfriend and his new significant other from random phone numbers.
After months, detectives were able to accurately ping the location of her latest cellphone and caught her in the bushes spying, with a pair of binoculars in her car. She tried to bury the phone in the mulch she was crouched upon.
Because her victims kept diligent records of the protective order violations and reported the details, investigators could work backward and establish ties to all of the violations.
“This took a minute, but we got it,” Elmore said. “We carried the ball across the line.”
Megan Martin, an attorney with Domestic Violence Intervention Services, said the Tulsa Police Department added a lethality assessment to its arsenal a few years ago that helps victims like Charlotte. Her situation was assessed at the Family Safety Center through a DVIS employee.
Lethality assessment protocol, approved by the Legislature in 2014, was designed to help officers determine the level of danger that victims might be facing and require officers to contact a victim advocacy organization. Its goal is to reduce the number of domestic violence cases that turn into homicides in Oklahoma, which consistently ranks in the top 10 for the number of women killed by men.
Martin said officers have better training and tools to assess domestic violence danger on the spot, which includes asking a series of standard questions to ascertain if a person needs help through advocates or a shelter.
In many instances violations aren’t apparent to an outsider, she said. For example, a couple who has been together for a while knows each other’s patterns, actions, reactions and how to mess with them.
Martin said she recalls hearing a woman’s story in which her abuser would violate a protective order by taking a stick and randomly placing it in different parts of her yard. She grew frustrated at how difficult the violations were to prove and installed a security system to catch him on video.
“Don’t be so quick to dismiss what’s happening,” Martin said.
Weakley said officers are doing a better job doing just that. Police hand out informational pamphlets and offer to make the phone call for help.
Weakley said detectives in the Family Violence Unit will follow up with victims in case they were initially too dazed to soak up the information in the distressing moment. Maybe they need time to self-reflect and realize they need help.
“It’s just trying to get out that information — no matter how desperate your situation, we’ve got services that can help make it better,” Weakley said.
‘Not simple black and white’
Protective orders aren’t necessarily for every victim. The legal document could escalate a volatile situation into an outright deadly atmosphere. Or a judge may decline to grant one for lack of evidence or another reason. Or perhaps the victim isn’t ready to file for one yet.
“If you’ve never had any training, if you’ve never experienced this, if you’ve never had a sister go through it, you can’t understand the mindset because it’s just different,” Charlotte said. “A normal person can say, ‘Well if it’s so bad, you would have left.’
“Yeah, well, it’s really not that easy whenever you have kids and bills and car payments and things like that. It’s not simple black and white like people expect for things to be.”
Experts with Domestic Violence Intervention Services and Family Safety Center both emphasize the importance for all victims to have a safety plan — just like Charlotte did and still does through DVIS.
Safety planning includes developing a course of action for when it’s time to leave an abusive situation — what should you have pre-packed, what do you take with you, where will you stay, etc.
Some victims are in such dire situations they need to develop a safety plan first and then go to a friend’s or family member’s home, or even a shelter, before filing for a protective order, Stewart said.
Stewart said Tulsa has had a “tremendous number” of domestic- or family violence-related homicides in recent years. Tulsa Police Department data lists nine in 2015, 16 in 2016 and nine this year through Monday.
“None of the people who’ve been killed ever accessed any services here,” Stewart said. “So there’s a segment of the population that doesn’t know we exist, and even if they did know we exist are not likely to reach out and ask for help.
“Our challenge is to reach those people and say, ‘We’re here — maybe you want a protective order or not. We’re not going to judge you, but we do want to help keep you safe.’”