Courts accessible for harassment and restraining orders

  • Northampton District Court. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/15/2020 12:18:12 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Although courthouses have been closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people seeking emergency restraining or harassment orders will still be heard by a judge.

In a standing order last Monday, Paul C. Dawley, chief justice of the district court, said that all 62 district courts around the state will continue to handle emergency matters virtually, including emergency restraining or harassment orders. The state probate and family court has issued similar rules for restraining orders.

In the order, Dawley said people seeking such emergency orders can either call the telephone number of the court that has jurisdiction over the issue, or a Trial Court helpline at 833-91COURT. For emergencies after court hours, judges can issue orders that will last for 10 days, according to updated trial court policy.

Mary Kociela, director of domestic and sexual violence programs at the Northwestern district attorney’s office, said people who are looking for these orders can also contact their local police department for help with receiving an emergency order, especially after hours. People also can get help through the state’s SAFEPLAN Program by calling a hotline at (413) 733-7100 run by YWCA Western Massachusetts specifically for Hampshire County; people can also call Safe Passage at (413) 586-5066. The district attorney’s office has a victim witness advocate and an attorney on call daily, Kociela said. There’s also a 24/7 crisis hotline run by the state’s SAFELINK program reachable at (877) 785-2020, she said.

People can still call 911 if there is an emergency, Kociela said.

According to the state’s website, an abuse prevention order, also known as a restraining order, is available from district and superior courts, as well as probate and family courts. Such an order is limited to abusers who have specific connections to victims, such as family, intimate or residential relationships. These are civil orders, but violations of certain parts are a criminal offense punishable by up to 2½ years in the house of correction.

Harassment prevention orders, according to the state, are offered by superior and district courts and can be sought by people who are being harassed by a person with which they may not have a specific relationship. These are also civil orders, but certain violations are criminal offenses.

Even in normal times, abusers often keep power over victims by isolating them at home, Kociela said. Now, under social distancing and stay-at-home guidelines, victims are less likely to be able to leave the house for work or other reasons for a brief respite, Kociela said.

“It’s making a situation that was already isolating and scary even more isolating,” Kociela said.

Kociela said people dealing with abuse should try to coordinate a safety plan with a trusted friend in case things escalate, or call a hotline if they need confidential help.

Marianne Winters, executive director of Safe Passage, said that there hasn’t been an increase or drop in the number of hotline calls, though she said there have been new people seeking help. The organization has been training staff to help people update safety planning while they are staying at home, Winters said, as previous plans can be irrelevant as abusers are more likely to be home.

Winters also said Safe Passage is looking on a daily basis at which local hotels have availability in case someone needs emergency shelter. The pandemic also makes it difficult for accused abusers if they are ordered to leave their dwelling, as family members may be more reticent to take in someone during the coronavirus, which could change safety plans.

“If you see these changes in your relationship where you’re feeling threatened … you don’t have to wait,” Winters said. “You can call and just get some support (or) work with an advocate to actually talk those issues through.”

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.
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