For those unfamiliar with the legalities of filing a temporary protective order (TPO), the issue may seem meaningless. But for anyone who’s suffered domestic violence, obtaining a TPO can mean the difference between fear and peace, or life and death.
To assist domestic violence victims in navigating the court system, Gateway Domestic Violence Center offers free legal assistance in filing TPOs in emergency situations. The Gainesville nonprofit also provides help with emergency safety planning to keep abusive partners from contacting or harassing domestic violence victims. The Jackson EMC Foundation granted $15,000 to the Legal Advocacy/Protective Orders program this year.
Gateway Domestic Violence Center was founded in 1982 as Gateway House to provide shelter and services for victims of domestic violence and their children. Along with emergency shelter and transitional housing, Gateway services also include a crisis hotline, parenting classes, and programs for children who have witnessed abuse at home. All services are free and confidential.
Gateway’s Legal Advocacy offices are at the Hall County Courthouse, where they have been since the advocacy program was established 20 years ago. Lanita Harris, an attorney, is the program director and Erica Perez, a legal advocate. Potential clients meet first with Lanita, who gathers their information to determine if they are eligible to receive a temporary protective order. Erica prepares cases and assists in filing the paperwork and getting the orders approved by a judge. The program provides about 120 TPOs a year, mostly to women.
“There is a critical need for legal assistance for victims of domestic violence,” says Erica. “It would be a lot more difficult for a victim to get a temporary protective order if they had to navigate the complicated legal process to obtain one on their own. So we serve as advocates for those coming in to get a TPO.”
The legal advocates also assist clients with safety planning, which includes teaching victims to identify a person to tell about their safety concerns, helping them put locks on doors or have locks changed, and providing emergency cellphones if they don’t have a way to call 911.
“Our services make it easier for victims to get the assistance they need,” says Lanita. “The TPO helps victims, especially if they’re married and live in the house with their abuser and have nowhere else to go. With a TPO, the abuser has to move out and is not allowed to come back. That’s good for the victim because until there’s a court order, the abuser can come and go in the home as they please.”
While some potential clients won’t be eligible for a TPO, others will require hours of assistance and legal representation, according to Lanita. For those not able to get an order, Gateway helps with safety planning and refers them to other agencies for support or shelter.
When TPOs are signed, abusers are not allowed to come within 500 yards of the victim. “That’s five football fields,” says Lanita, noting that temporary protective orders are good for 30 days. “Within those 30 days, the victim may work to have the order continued for one year and then make it permanent, if necessary.”
Due to the nature of the services they receive, clients who obtain assistance from Gateway Domestic Violence Center to obtain temporary protective orders are reluctant to share their stories and identities. But Gateway staff members recalled some situations.
One client who visited their Gainesville office seeking a TPO was lucky to be alive, according to Legal Advocate Erica Perez.
“The woman’s husband had rammed the back of her car, pushing it into heavy traffic,” says Erica. “Thankfully, no one was hurt.”
Legal Advocacy Director Lanita Harris shares the story of a woman who was stalked by a complete stranger.
“This man in Ohio sent her a Facebook friend request, and she accepted it because she thought it was someone she went to high school with,” says Lanita. “It wasn’t who she thought it was, so she was completely uninterested, but if you read his side of the messages, you’d think they were in a relationship.”
The stranger continued sending messages to the woman and eventually took a bus to her apartment complex in Georgia, where he tried but failed to make contact with her. Terrified, she called police. The man was arrested and served time for making terroristic threats.
The woman first received a TPO and then a 12-month restraining order and, finally, a permanent order that will not expire, according to Lanita.