Domestic violence is often cited as a top priority for lawmakers and public safety officials, but just how well is the system working to protect victims?

There’s no lack of stated good intentions about protections for victims, but as we dug into the protective order process, we found flaws, and that consequences for violations are lacking.

Especially after some high-profile events and investigations involving domestic violence, no one from the Capitol to the courthouse, the police station to the prosecutor’s office would ever say prevention is on the back burner.

But victims say they feel it is.

“He seemed like the perfect guy,” said a woman whose seemingly ideal relationship quickly deteriorated years ago. In the time since, she has sought numerous protective orders from that ex.

We reviewed stacks of documents that showed – despite those restraining orders – continued extensive stalking, spying, hacking, incessant texts and calls from him, vandalizing and break-ins. He’d choked and injured her; she’d fought back and faced trouble for that too.

“Every time he got arrested or got in trouble, it escalated, escalated, escalated,” she said.

Now she’s seen firsthand severe flaws with restraining orders, that key tool meant to put a barrier between a victim and their abuser. We found she’s not alone.

“I stopped calling to report the incident because the response I would get was, ‘Oh, he’s still in love with you,’ or ‘Oh, what did you do to him?’” she said. “They call it ‘drama.’ ‘So you guys broke up. You used to date. Now he’s doing all this to you? You sure you didn’t do anything to him?’”

We listened to recorded interactions with short-tempered officers, something she called to HPD’s attention only to be told: “He’s like that. It’s not just you. He had many complaints and don’t take it personal. He needs to work on his bedside manner.”

Despite a 25-page HPD protective order procedure, she showed us an email from a detective who said he’d finally tracked down an unserved TRO in an HPD fax inbox that wasn’t logged, citing colleagues’ inaction. That’s a problem we’d found years ago when tracking why orders aren’t timely served or even — as often as 1 in 6 — sit dormant entirely.

HPD told us in a statement: “Officers sometimes have difficulty serving an individual if the address on the order is old and the current location of the individual is unknown, if the individual is at a location for a short period of time and an officer and/or the court order is not immediately available, or if the individual’s location is called in outside of the hours listed on the court order.”

That’s among the problem’s she’s having with her latest TRO — close to expiration, languishing unserved.

“If he’s not here, you can’t serve him. The court will dismiss the TRO — you don’t have a TRO — no address, no TRO,” she said. “I can’t get it served and the judged didn’t put a warrant on his revocation of probation. He’s free to roam anywhere. We can’t find him and they’re not looking.”

Another key branch in the protective order equation is the Judiciary. Victims and advocates report problems there too: a lack of information or resources at the starting point, which is the filing of the TROs at District or Family Court.

Dennis Dunn, director of Victim Witness Kokua Services at the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney, told us: “We’ve had a number report that they were either discouraged or incorrectly informed about whether they were eligible for a TRO. … In some cases, people seem to think they’re being told this isn’t really going to help them, or being left with concerns whether or not this is going to be helpful.”

Courts sometimes steer victims toward short orders when they could have been years longer.

“They granted it only for the six months and this is my fourth one, my fourth TRO,” the victim we spoke with said.

“A lot of victims are not fully informed about the length of time of the order they can be applying for,” Dunn said. “It’s very difficult for them, if not impossible for them, to get back in court to have it changed.”

The Judiciary told us in a statement: “Members of the public who encounter difficulties in filing TROs are encouraged to contact us so that we can help address any issues or concerns.”

They advise:

  • During business hours, ask to speak to the manager on duty,
  • Call the Judiciary’s complaints hotline at (808) 547-4910,
  • Go to the Judiciary website any time of day and click the “Give Feedback” link in the left sidebar. Incoming messages are monitored and someone will respond to assist with any issues involving the TRO process.

The Judiciary says “ensuring safety and providing everyone with a fair process are the primary concerns of the Judiciary in matters involving TROs.”

They offer filing help for “Temporary Restraining Order Units Monday through Friday, Family Court Adult Client Services Branch (ACSB), Oahu Family Court same-day protective orders. Oahu Family Court and District Court staff are available to help the petitioner fill out the necessary forms.

On the neighbor islands, the Judiciary has contracted with community service providers to assist petitioners with completing the forms correctly. These community service providers may also accompany the petitioner to court for the filing.”

Filing the order won’t necessarily be the last time in court for the victims though. They’ll often find themselves back there to testify after a perpetrator is caught violating the order.

There too arises another systemic problem.

“The penalties are not enough of a deterrent,” Dunn said. “Most of the people we see convicted of violating a restraining order are not getting any very significant penalties, so as a result we have some individuals who are just frequent fliers, so to speak, at court. They’re just violating restraining orders with little or no consequences.”

“From my experience, the officers are frustrated because when they do make an arrest, they get to court, the judge will let them out,” the victim said.

“The reality is the people who are there on low-level misdemeanors are going to be the first people let go or shown more leniency, so they’re not spending a long time in jail,” Dunn said. “I’m not sure that there’s a full appreciation when you have 20 or 30 different violations as to what the impact is and the necessity that person needs to be incapacitated for a while for that victim to feel safe.”

Always Investigating asked, what can be done about it?

“I think we need to set up some type of ongoing task force or something that looks on these issues on a regular basis,” Dunn said.

Years ago a federal violence prevention grant facilitated that among courts, prosecutors, police, even the attorney general and the military.

“We need something like that to get everybody coordinated,” Dunn said, “just to make sure that everybody who needs protection is getting it, as well as trying to coordinate our efforts or make sure these orders once granted are properly applied.”

Victims hope that can happen soon.

“It shouldn’t be that way. That’s why the system has failed so many women,” the victim told us, “and they die. They pay with their lives.”

We’ll follow up on whether more grant money will be pursued to help facilitate the kinds of group meetings authorities used to have, and if anything else can be done without a budget.