Petitioning for an Order of Protection: “For one week, I didn’t know where my four-year-old daughter was”

Victims of domestic violence often turn to the courts to obtain an Order of Protection (OOP) against their abusers when other remedies fail. For someone already traumatized, petitioning for an OOP can be a frightening prospect. To help these individuals navigate the OOP application, and also to support them in court, Family Shelter’s court advocates will assist them every step of the way.

“The Illinois Domestic Violence Act, first passed in 1982, enables victims to apply for the OOP, go to court and obtain copies of the OOP completely free of charge,” explained Amy Milligan, Family Shelter’s Director of Counseling & Advocacy. “In addition, unlike other types of cases, the IDVA permits court advocates to accompany these individuals to court; in that way, they don’t have the expense of an attorney — unless they want one. The IDVA was structured so that cost wouldn’t be an obstacle for individuals who want to obtain an OOP.”

An OOP can require the abuser to stay away from the victim and limit other forms of access; it can prevent the abuser from contacting them by phone, cell phone, text messages, email, mail, fax, or third parties. It can force the abuser to move out of the home and award temporary custody of children, together with child support, spousal support and the continuation of insurance coverage.

An Order of Protection may be a significant first step in finding safety for victims and/or their children, but for an individual already traumatized by their experience, the lengthy application can be daunting. The importance of completing the application properly, however, cannot be underestimated because petitioners must then attend a hearing in court to prove that they have experienced abuse or been threatened with violence.

This is where the staff of Family Shelter Service’s Court Advocacy Program comes in. Housed at the DuPage County Courthouse, the Court Advocacy team walks individuals through the process of obtaining an Order of Protection, accompanies them in court and refers them to other needed resources.

Natalie’s Story

Tracey Papesh, a member of Family Shelter’s Court Advocacy team, described the circumstances surrounding one woman’s petition for an OOP.

“Natalie was remarried, but had one child with her former husband who was given regular visitation,” Papesh explained.

“When he became enraged about child care arrangements Natalie had made for their daughter when she was at work, the situation began to escalate.”

“The last time he picked up the four-year-old child for a visit,” Papesh said, “he didn’t come back that evening…or the next day. When mom finally reached her child on the phone, the little girl told her that they had gone on a trip. We encouraged her to file an OOP even though the child was not yet in her possession, which she did.”

The child’s mother contacted local law enforcement personnel who eventually caught up with her ex-husband and child at an out-of-state hotel. He voluntarily returned the child.

“A week had passed by the time the child was returned to the mother,” Papesh said, “and the mother was overwhelmed by the whole process. She decided not to file child abduction charges because that came with a minimum 15-year jail sentence; she didn’t want the child stigmatized by having a father in jail for that long.”

The OOP, Papesh explained, was filed for six months, during which time the father is prohibited from having contact with the family. Petitioners are permitted to re-apply when the duration of the OOP is up in order to have it extended.

The circumstances that would drive someone to obtain an OOP are almost beyond imagining for most people, but for individuals like Natalie, it is an important first step in gaining the protection of the courts and law enforcement.

Last year, Family Shelter court advocacy staff helped more than 800 people obtain Orders of Protection. For many of these individuals, Family Shelter not only offered the expertise they needed to navigate the court system, but also someone to calm their fears and help them on their journey to safety.

Pictured: DuPage County has provided Family Shelter with office space at the courthouse to help individuals with Orders of Protection.