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As courts close for the coronavirus, officials and advocates adjust to protect domestic violence victims

Throughout the Philadelphia region, experts worry that residents aren’t aware that help is still available.

Courthouses across the Philadelphia region, including the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas in Norristown, are retaining a small number of staff members to help residents file protection-from-abuse orders during the coronavirus pandemic.
Courthouses across the Philadelphia region, including the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas in Norristown, are retaining a small number of staff members to help residents file protection-from-abuse orders during the coronavirus pandemic.Read moreFrank Wiese / File Photograph

State and federal leaders have not minced words during the coronavirus pandemic: The best, and safest, place to be is home. Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday extended his stay-at-home order statewide.

But domestic-violence advocates across the Philadelphia region say that homes aren’t safe for hundreds of families. Court officials have seen applications for protection-from-abuse orders either stay consistent or drop slightly. They quietly fear that people in dangerous situations aren’t aware that otherwise shuttered county courthouses remain open for these emergency functions, and are actively working to remind people that there is always a place to turn to, even during a pandemic.

Laurel House, a domestic-abuse nonprofit serving Montgomery County, has tailored its services during the shutdown to keep petitioners seeking the protection orders safe. One of the largest adjustments, made in concert with the county solicitor, has been to provide hotel rooms for applicants whose orders prevent them from living with an abuser, according to Tara Willis, the nonprofit’s domestic abuse response team manager.

“A protection-from-abuse order already isn’t the best situation. Sometimes it can escalate things further, and this becomes another added risk,” she said. “But the court is making all the adjustments so people can get the protection they need.”

The usual strategies for dealing with an abusive relationship are ineffective, Willis said. People can’t stay with relatives for fear of exposure to the virus, and kids can’t find a needed respite from an unstable household with schools closed.

Special hotlines serve as placeholders for in-person consultations, and police departments are helping residents set up FaceTime calls with judges for hearings, according to Willis. De-escalation, already a major part of dealing with abuse, has become even more crucial.

“We usually have those conversations, but now they’re shifting to how do you hunker down and stay safe until we can get you help,” she said. “And there’s an extra burden of having to have those conversations without being able to leave your home.”

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Judges say that while some of the process has changed, the underlying goal — the safety and protection of abuse victims — has not. In Philadelphia and its suburbs, courthouses have instituted a rotation of judges on standby, ready to handle protection-from-abuse applications as other matters have been pushed ahead.

“If that isn’t an essential function, I don’t know what is,” said Chester County Judge Katherine Platt, who oversees the county’s family court. “And if we have knowledge that people are in danger of physical violence, we need to make sure that we address it, and that has got to take priority over contractual disputes, property concerns, and anything else.”

Platt said the concerns being expressed during these emergency hearings, many of which are being handled remotely through phone or video calls, are largely the same as they were before the pandemic hit.

“People who are concerned for their personal safety are people who’ve been concerned for their personal safety," she said. “Their concerns are less related to COVID-19.”

Still, amid this unprecedented shutdown order, nearly every facet of the court system has had to adjust. In Bucks County, Prothonotary Judith Reiss started preparations early, consulting protocols developed by the office in 2009 during the H1N1 influenza pandemic. Her employees were able to respond quickly, she said, and are still able to see people in the office, albeit one at a time.

» READ MORE: Domestic violence centers are expecting a surge as coronavirus keeps abusers home

Outside the court system, advocates like those at Philadelphia Legal Assistance are still fielding calls, using the latitude provided by the Municipal Court to help applicants file protection-from-abuse orders through email. Susan Pearlstein, supervising attorney for the nonproft, said that while the system has adjusted in response to the pandemic, it has highlighted areas for improvement that can be made during the best of times.

“It’s a little more complicated than normal process, which is already complicated for unrepresented litigants anyway,” she said. “So it does highlight the need for free legal service, because this process is onerous and difficult on a good day.”

But the bottom line, for the foreseeable future, is that help is available, even as many other parts of life seem uncertain.

“We’re worried that people might think everything is closed,” she said. “We’re trying to get word out that legal aid is available, courts are open, and, despite these new obstacles, access is still available.”