27 Nov 2016

Insight: Are Protection Orders Taken Seriously?

From Insight, 8:12 am on 27 November 2016

The Waikato Women's Refuge Te Whakaruruhau is struggling to cope with the soaring numbers of women seeking protection from violence.


Just over 2245 people were convicted of breaching protection orders last year, up 14 percent on the previous year. Photo: Flickr - European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari

Inside the building, on a recent visit, the atmosphere was warm and inviting. The smell of freshly brewed coffee and the sound of laughter and paper shuffling greeted me.

The large open space, with just a handful of divides for staff desks and privacy, felt soothing... and safe.

As social media embeds itself firmly in everyday life, it's also being used as a tool for abusers and stalkers to taunt their victims. And that's prompting more women to come to places like this one for help getting protection orders - so, if the online threats turn physical, they have some legal protection.

Once granted, though, are protection orders being taken seriously enough?

Thirty years after the Waikato refuge was first established, chief executive Ruahine Albert said times had certainly changed. She leaned over her desk, unable to hide her distress, saying demand for their services had skyrocketed and they were in hot water.

"We dealt with like 40 to 50 cases a month. Now, we're dealing with 350 to 500 cases a month."

She put the rise partly down to more awareness.

"People have got a little bit more confident that something might be done. There's so many deaths these days with our kids, with women... and so much harm that's happening that people are wanting to do something about it. And that's really cool."

Ruahine Albert runs the Waikato Womens Refuge Te Whakaruruhau

  Ruahine Albert, who runs Waikato Womens Refuge Te Whakaruruhau, says they're being overwhelmed with new cases. Photo: RNZ/Carla Penman

"We're way over-delivering on the cases that we get paid for from the government," she continued. "So we get paid for 1500 cases per year... Last year, I think it was about 6500.

"If we stopped at 1500 we'd knock that out in about three months."

The refuge had been given a stern warning from the government that it needed to stop taking on more cases, she said - but they refused to turn women and families away.

And, she said, they were seeing more ad hoc protection orders flowing in than ever before.

Raewyn Curtis, a team leader at the refuge, agreed they had never been busier.

"On Thursday, we had something like 30 families in one day that we had to attend to. Over the weekend, we had another 50 come through yesterday. It's real busy for this time of year. We usually start to get busy but not like we have been. We're not sure what's happening."

Raewyn Curtis, a team leader at Waikato Women's Refuge Te Whakaruruhau

Raewyn Curtis: "We had something like 30 families in one day that we had to attend to." Photo: RNZ/Carla Penman

On Sunday 13 November, she referred five women for protection orders within 45 minutes, which stunned her, she said.

In the past two months, they'd also noticed a trend of women coming in seeking protection from their meth-addicted partners.

"Probably more so that at the moment than the alcohol. Me and one of the other team leaders were talking yesterday and wondering if there was a different batch out there, because the women were coming in really scared and really terrified."

'Creepy' and 'obsessive' social media use

Ms Curtis said, on an almost daily basis, women were complaining about their ex-partners stalking them on social media.

Women's Refuge New Zealand head Ang Jury shared the same concerns.

"What we're seeing a lot of at the moment is the sort of stuff that's a little bit difficult to pin down and quantify as violence. Like messages on Facebook and emails and sort of, creepy, stalk-y stuff... which is becoming far more common."

Offenders were hacking into victim's Facebook and LinkedIn accounts and sending messages to friends, pretending to be them, she said.

A breach might appear minor on the face of it, but when added on top of everything else, it wasn't, Ms Jury said.

"Things like coming home from work one day and finding a bunch of flowers or a present or something on your back doorstep. That's actually scary for someone who thinks someone [their stalker] knows where they are. And getting that taken seriously when it looks like a nice gesture.

"So it's the same sort of process that we need to go through with technological violence, so we need to have it become understood that to receive 50 protestations of undying love is just as abusive."

Enforcement hurdles

Melanie Baker, who specialises in family law and sits on the New Zealand Law Society's family law committee, said she believed the fault did not lie with the court system, in terms of treating protection order applications urgently.

She often heard about delays at the police's end instead, she said.

A portrait of family lawyer - Melanie Baker

Family lawyer Melanie Baker said she suspected delays were happening at the police end. Photo: RNZ/Carla Penman

"Once the order's made and sent out for service, then it's expected that the police and or the court bailiffs will attend to service... that then becomes out of their hands.

"We're expected to provide the most up-to-date information that we can about the location and whereabouts of the respondents. But often, as I say, there are delays and often they're not brought to the person's attention until it's an issue. So the police of course are called to an incident or go looking for a person in relation to an allegation of a breach."

The police were then not able to make arrests for that, because the offender or alleged offender wasn't aware of the order until that moment, she said

It was critical that the police were well resourced to help them deal with this, she said.

Women's Refuge's Ang Jury said offenders should be arrested for every reported breach, rather than leaving it to officers' discretion.

"Regardless of how minor, or whatever that might be, that breach should be before the courts. Police prosecutions should prosecute each and every breach.

"Put it before the courts and let the courts decide whether it was a breach. It's not something I think should be left to the subjective understanding of a police officer."

Will proposed government law changes help?

In September, the government announced its $130 million four-year plan for tackling family violence.

That included making it easier to apply for protection orders, flagging criminal records with family violence offending and allowing others to apply for an order on a victim's behalf.

New special offences such as non fatal-strangulation were brought in, as experts, including the Law Society, described the offence as an important risk factor in a future fatal attack.

Sixty-six extra police officers were also assigned to help enforce the changes.

Justice Minister Amy Adams said it was not just about handing out a piece of paper to offenders and telling them to follow the rules.

"It's also about ensuring we use that opportunity to say, what's going on in this family, what is the risk, have we got the right tools in place.

"And also to look at the offender. What sort of programmes do we need to put around that offender to help manage that behaviour?"

But, Women's Refuge said, support agencies that looked after victims were still crying out for more money to help them cope with the scale of the demand they faced from women living in dangerous situations.