BELLEVUE -- When victims of domestic violence try to get out of potentially deadly relationships, protection orders are widely used as part of the survival plan.
But the 15-year-old state law has created casualties of its own -- men and women who have never posed a threat, never struck a blow.
That's the argument of a Bellevue lawyer lobbying to repeal the protection order law.
Judges hand them out like candy,'' said Lisa Scott, a family law attorney.
Protection orders are designed to be easy to get.
Judges issue thousands of temporary orders each year, barring people from their homes and from contact with their partners, based on the sworn statements of just one of the parties.
Because the orders are issued in civil, not criminal, proceedings, the standard of proof is lower than when someone is charged with a crime.
The state's law, which closely follows a national model endorsed by family law judges and attorneys, recognizes the grave danger that abusive partners pose and the private, often undocumented nature of domestic violence.
Temporary orders aim to give a window for escape. But it's a safeguard that comes at a cost, Scott said.
Protection orders stain records and reputations. They put people at risk of being summarily jailed. They get people thrown out of their homes. They keep parents from their children.
Orders stoke the tension in already difficult disputes.
The orders are temporary, but the damage can be lasting, Scott said.
Frankly, these judges are terrified'' of being the one to deny an order to someone who is later murdered, Scott said.
Instead, domestic violence complaints should be handled entirely through the criminal system, she said. It metes out tougher penalties for offenders and more protections for the accused than the civil process.
Criminal courts also can issue no-contact orders against people suspected of domestic violence.
Scott has spent the past six months organizing an effort to challenge the law's shortcomings.
She formed the group TABS --Taking Action Against Bias in the System -- which aims to educate, advocate and help people who think they've been wronged.
By the end of the year, she hopes to have a contact person for the group in every county of the state.
Mary Pontarolo, executive director of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said Scott's is a dangerous message.
She's feeding right in to what perpetrators of domestic violence want us to believe: That it can't be true,'' said Pontarolo, who has run the state coalition since 1990. She has treated abusers, worked as an advocate for the abused and set up shelters.
While Scott points to the harm done to a relative handful of men she has represented during her 11 years in practice, Pontarolo points to 44 women dead in the past two years in Washington in domestic disputes.
The most recent Eastside casualty: Gertrudes Lamson, 50, shot to death at the Klahanie home of her husband, who is charged with her murder. Lamson had a protection order against her husband.
I would certainly never deny that some people abuse the system,'' Pontarolo said. But that's not reason enough to abandon it, she said.
The greater risk is still that victims aren't taken seriously when they ask for help, Pontarolo said.
Clyde Wilbanks, 62, landed in jail last summer for inadvertently violating a protection order he says should never have been issued.
An ex-girlfriend, citing abuse that he denies, twice got protection orders against him. In those two years, he never contacted her or encountered her, although they lived in the same Bellevue apartment complex.
He tried challenging the orders, pointing to the woman's psychiatric history, including delusional, psychotic episodes that were documented in a court-ordered evaluation after she was arrested for assaulting a police officer at her home.
A librarian testified in Bellevue District Court that the ex-girlfriend came to the library while Wilbanks worked at a computer there one morning last summer, saw him and asked staff to call police. Wilbanks said he never even saw his ex-girlfriend that day.
After that incident, Wilbanks moved to Seattle to avoid another chance meeting. When the order ran out in December, the woman again filed for -- and received -- an emergency protection order, citing the summer arrest as evidence of its necessity.
Scott got the order dismissed last month.
But Wilbanks, who still received a parting warning from the judge about the criminal harassment laws, feels he's been banished.
These (orders) have nothing to do with abuse and have everything to do with mental illness,'' he said.
In cases where kids and property are involved, the cases can get even stickier and the damage more severe, Scott said.
The die may be cast by the time a parent ordered out of the house gets a chance to answer the charges in court.
Fourteen days is an eternity in family law,'' Scott said. ``If one parent is living in a van by the river for 14 days, he's toast'' in a dispute over custody.
Ralph Moldauer, another Bellevue family law attorney, agreed that parents can, and do, work the protection order system to get an advantage in custody and property disputes.
Courts are reluctant to upset arrangements that give children stable homes. So the person who gets the house and the kids first usually keeps them, he said.
It does give them a leg up,'' Moldauer said.
Judges and court commissioners who hear the thousands of cases filed each year in King County know that.
There is an increasing awareness on the bench of that tactic,'' said Mark Alexander, a Bellevue attorney who chairs the family law committee of the King County Bar Association.
Judge Jim Cayce, presiding judge of the King County District Courts, said he doesn't see signs of the abuses Scott talks about.
During the summer of 1997, Cayce told a bar association committee that on several occasions people sought protection orders in District Court to force their partners out of the house. Some said attorneys told them of this as an expedient remedy.
Cayce wanted to alert family lawyers, and he emphasized that District Court has no business issuing the orders unless there has been violence or threats of violence.
Cayce said unnecessary protection orders have not been a continuing problem in the courts. In those 1997 cases, he noted that the orders were denied where there was no domestic violence.
In 1997, more than 4,700 requests for protection orders were filed in the District Courts of King County.
About 5,000 cases go before commissioners in Superior Court each year for hearings, in which both sides get to present their cases.
In Superior Court last week, a man contested the protection order sought by his wife of 20 years by arguing that he had beaten her in the past only when he was drinking. He had been sober 15 years now, except for one recent relapse, which he attributed to the stresses of the divorce.
He said he didn't make threats against his wife; he said he threatened only to harm her boyfriend.
The judge granted the order.
In another recent case in Bellevue District Court, a woman said her ex-boyfriend had a drinking problem, had chased her around the house with a towel and that some months before she had seen a silhouette in her apartment in the middle of the night and believed that someone -- the ex-boyfriend -- was inside.
The man said she had a drinking problem and that he had not been drinking for months, since he began treatment for manic depression.
He said he had never entered her apartment without being invited and read what he said were transcripts of messages she left on his answering machine rapidly cycling between affection and fury.
The order was upheld.
Shari Yeatts launched and now leads the prosecuting attorney's staff of 25 advocates who work with people seeking protection orders in superior and district courts.
The advocates help victims translate their experience into requests for protection. They often stand between two feuding parties in tense hearings that fill the family court calendar each morning.
During her decade with the program, Yeatts has seen about 50,000 such cases go to hearings in Superior Court.
She said the courts use caution in sorting through these cases. But there's little reason to think it's misplaced, she said.
When it is borderline ... I think the court tends to err on the side of safety, rather than denying the order and having someone get killed,'' Yeatts said. ``But these (borderline) cases are very rare.''
That's little comfort to those who feel the process exacts a punishment with scant evidence of a crime.
Scott represented one such Bellevue man.
After his wife moved out and took their two pre-school children with her, the couple worked out a custody-sharing arrangement that was approved by the court. She often called on him to take the children even more often.
But one day he arrived to pick up the children and she refused, saying he should have already been served with a protection order issued by Bellevue District Court.
In her request for the order, she wrote she was afraid for her children's safety and for her own.
Her petition contained no allegations he had ever struck her or them, nor threatened them with harm. But she described several angry outbursts: A toddler placed roughly into a time-out chair. Yelling. Grabbing her wrist during an argument.
When he appealed the order in Superior Court, she said he was suspected of sexually abusing their daughter. The dispute stretched on for months as counselors evaluated the family.
The man first lost all contact with his kids, then had only supervised contact until the evaluations were complete and the protection order and custody restrictions were dismissed.
He's still reeling.
This is the most horrendous experience I've ever been through,'' he said.
Scott says she understands the real fears and dangers that victims of abuse confront.
As she makes the rounds in Olympia this legislative session, Scott can be found testifying for legislation to expand the power of protection orders.
Under one bill, people getting emergency protection orders would be eligible for emergency permits to carry concealed weapons. Another bill would recognize protection orders issued by other states.
At the same time, she's spreading the message of TABS and telling lawmakers that the existing law is a bad way to protect people.
She doesn't expect it to be a popular message."
I think a lot of people are afraid to stand up and say there's a problem.''
Joanne Plank covers Bellevue. She can be reached at 425-453-4243 or firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more
TABS information line:
or on the Web: www.tabs.org
The full article is at the Eastside Journal Web site.