In Kansas, abuse survivors seeking help from courts don't get the legal assistance they need
Protection from abuse orders are a civil process, which means someone is not guaranteed a lawyer. Survivors who often have little legal expertise need to act as their own lawyer.
TOPEKA, Kansas — Hannah Green said her father physically, mentally and sexually abused her. It was especially bad when she first hit puberty.
She tried multiple times to get criminal charges pressed against him, but none panned out. Eventually, her parents got divorced and her father moved away. She hoped he would keep his distance, but that didn’t happen.
He’d leave birthday gifts for her at her house. One day, her dad showed up to her work even though she never shared that she had that job.
Green decided she had enough and filed a protection from abuse order. That would mean future contact from her father could get him locked up.
Protection from abuse orders are a civil process in Kansas, which means people who can’t afford a lawyer very likely won’t get one. Constitutional protections guaranteeing a right to an attorney only extend to criminal cases.
The court hearing is an emotional day for survivors. Some walk out in tears, others are more optimistic, but almost all of them walk out without legal help — with one advocate saying up to 70% of people represent themselves in these cases.
That means survivors of abuse make their own legal arguments in a court process many have no experience with, often in front of their alleged abuser. Failing to make a compelling legal case could end up with an upset ex-partner and no legal protection.
Green remembers walking into her hearing and seeing her father for the first time in a year.
“Your heart and your stomach just sink,” she said. Green, who was 20-years-old when she started this process, did have a lawyer.
“You're not really prepared for that situation until you’re in it,” she said. “And I think having someone else there that handles all of the legal stuff is really helpful and beneficial if you’re able to afford it.”
Green said her lawyer made the process go by smoother and she didn’t even need to be in court the day her order was signed.
“Which was helpful because it let me not have to see him again,” she said.
Green’s father has since died. But she wishes the process was more accessible for other victims of abuse.
Applying for a protection order can be done online and would then require a court hearing for a judge to make a decision. In Sedgwick County, the non-profit Kansas Legal Services offers lawyers to those who need one. Attorney Becky Hesse is one of the lawyers at the docket helping survivors.
But Hesse doesn’t have much time with her clients and every week she learns about someone’s case just minutes before they are in front of a judge.
“That is every Thursday afternoon for sure,” said Hesse, who is a domestic violence attorney in the Wichita office. “We go in blind.”
In an ideal world, attorneys would have more time to talk with clients, tell them how the process works and go over the case. But Hesse said even the short conversations she’s had with clients have helped. She remembers one case where a survivor never mentioned to the judge the time the alleged abuser held her against her will.
A lawyer can keep survivors focused on the key details of their case.
“They’re nervous. They’re scared to see the alleged perpetrator. They (have) the trauma response,” she said. “That is a very much real scenario.”
These orders prohibit an alleged abuser from contacting the victim. No texting, phone calls or social media messages. The orders also prohibit tracking or threatening someone.
For some victims, these orders can make a world of difference, which is why Hesse is passionate about the work. She said that’s important if an attorney wants to be effective at the job.
Sedgwick County’s abuse dockets are every Thursday — protection from stalking in the morning and protection from abuse in the afternoon. The size of Sedgwick County’s protection docket changes each week. But Hesse said it averages about 50 people in the morning and 75 people in the afternoon, and every Thursday she plans to represent 99% of the people in these cases.
She said it isn’t uncommon for someone to mistakenly file an order that is better suited for a different court. Maybe they are filing a protection from abuse order to keep a person away from a child, but their case may have more luck in a family law court.
Other times, people don’t realize that they can ask for their court date to be pushed back. That could give them time to talk with a lawyer more. One other common misstep is how people represent evidence.
Someone trying for a protection order may say there are threatening text messages or videos on their phone, but someone reading off their phone may not be acceptable evidence.
“The judge can't just take a look at your phone, unless you want to give the judge your phone and have that be gone,” said Andrea Cross, a former magistrate judge in Russell County.
Cross, who also works for survivors advocacy group Options Domestic & Sexual Violence Services in Hays, presided over cases while in office and saw the same beginner mistakes Hesse saw. She said people think court processes are similar to what they see on television, but that doesn’t mirror real life at all.
Cross said if she could change something about the system, she’d like to see everyone contact a courtroom advocate because there is a lot to gain from an uninvolved third party.
“Talking it out with your mom is so different than talking it out with an advocate,” Cross said. “Because moms are typically going to want to comfort and they don’t want to play devil's advocate at that moment.”
A courtroom advocate's job does happen in the courtroom, but it can also happen outside of court. Some courtroom advocates help people go through the entire protection order application process, but they’ll also have a frank conversation about whether it’s worth it.
A protection from abuse order is just a piece of paper, some advocates will tell clients. While it does provide additional legal protection, it can also upset an abuser and make that survivor's life more dangerous.
Tracey Gay and her team work with survivors going through this process. She’s the director of client services for the Wichita Family Crisis Center. She’ll be at the courthouse Thursdays at 8:30 a.m. so she arrives before the docket starts. That gives her time to set up before everyone arrives.
She works with four other advocacy groups to help people in the courtroom. Those groups will be there during roll call looking at body language to see who might need help. Some people like talking to an advocate, others don’t.
“Maybe they just want you to sit there with them because they don't want to sit there by themselves, or they've never done this before and don't know what to expect,” she said.
Advocates don’t operate like lawyers. They can’t offer legal advice and they don’t take the stand to argue on someone’s behalf. Their goal is to make the process easier for people by answering questions or just being around to make them feel comfortable.
Much like lawyers, not every court in the state has these advocates to help victims. Having to confront an abuser is not easy, and it comes with many complicated emotions, advocates across the state say. Having to deal with those emotions makes navigating the rigid structure of the court process even more difficult.
“If we weren’t there? There would be no stop, there would be no pause to their pain or their trauma,” she said. “That really sucks to think about.”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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