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One woman's fearful encounter with the city's self-serve approach in domestic-violence cases

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ/Daily NewsRead moreGraves walks the halls of the 24th Police District seeking help with serving a protection-from-abuse order against an ex-boyfriend.

WEARING SUNGLASSES to hide a black eye, Lorraine Graves sat on a blue plastic chair against a dirt-smudged wall.

It was nearly noon and she already had waited hours inside the dreary, fluorescent-lit domestic-violence unit of Family Court.

"I don't know why he did this to me," Graves said loudly into her cell phone about the man who had choked her and broken her nose.

She sat among a dozen other solemn-faced women waiting to file for a protection-from-abuse order. Some listened to her phone conversation, sympathetically nodding their heads. Others stared vacantly at a television bolted, hospital-style, to the wall. Up on the screen, the chipper hosts of a newsmagazine show blah-blahed their way through a cooking segment.

Graves seemed oblivious to it all. She was consumed by a tangle of emotions - fear, anger, bewilderment and shame.

"I ain't never been beat on by no man," she said out loud to no one in particular.

While news organizations and politicians obsess over an explosion of gun violence on Philadelphia's streets, an epidemic is raging behind closed doors.

All across the city, in all types of homes, well-off and poor, people who intimately know one another fight violently. Domestic disputes, often fueled by red-hot passion, are by far the most dangerous and most numerous cases handled by cops and courts in this city.

City police responded to more than 120,000 domestic-violence 911 calls in 2005. Of those, there were 10 murders, 251 rapes, 2,597 aggravated assaults, and 6,146 simple assaults. More than 13,400 Philadelphians filed for protection-from-abuse orders in Family Court, according to 2005 statistics, the latest available.

Room 242 - the court's domestic-violence-intake unit - is perhaps one of the grimmest and busiest places in the city. It is an assembly line of horror stories.

Each week, hundreds of abuse victims, mostly women, stream into the unit, nursing physical and emotional wounds.

On a beautiful fall day, 40-year-old Lorraine Graves was one of them.

Her arrival at the unit marked the beginning of an exhausting and bone-chilling quest for a protection order. Over the next seven days, she'd risk her job, her safety and her children's sense of security.

Only she didn't know it then.

'He has a mental thing'

After a seemingly endless wait, a court employee called her number, and Graves disappeared into a back room. For the next half-hour, she recounted her ordeal to a stranger:

The man she had just started dating showed up at her doorstep drunk. He wanted to sleep it off at her West Philly rowhouse, on North 60th Street off Lansdowne Avenue.

"He got in my bed with his sneakers. I told him I don't want to be bothered," she told a case interviewer, who typed her words into a computer verbatim.

She asked him to leave, but he refused.

"Then he said, 'Are you going to shut up?' and I said, 'No.' He said he was going to throw me through a window. I said, 'You want to think before you do that.' Then he grabbed me around my neck and he threw me on the bed."

He held her down. Struggling for air, kicking wildly, she fought him off.

"Get out! Get out!" she screamed.

That's when he punched her so hard he broke her nose. The next day she called police and went to the hospital. He called her and acted like he had no clue what had happened.

"I believe he has a mental thing going on inside of him," she told the court employee.

She knew he had a drug and alcohol problem and had spent time in jail, but didn't know what for. (Records show he was sentenced to a minimum of seven days in jail and six months' probation after pleading guilty in 2006 to DUI and to fleeing or attempting to elude police. In the 1990s, he served jail time for DUI, drug possession and theft.)

The case interviewer listened intently. He had heard stories like Graves' 100 times before. In fact, by day's end, he'd hear dozens just like it. He printed out her petition, then sent her back out to the unit's waiting room. As she sat, her paperwork was walked over to a judge's courtroom down the hall. During a break in cases, the judge read her petition and granted a temporary protection order.

The order, though only temporary, meant her former boyfriend was forbidden to "abuse, threaten, harass or stalk" her. He wasn't allowed at her house or workplace. If he violated the order, the cops could arrest him and charge him with contempt of court, punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a maximum $1,000 fine.

With paperwork in hand, Graves was told to return to court in six days for a hearing before a judge who would listen to her side and that of her alleged attacker and determine whether to grant a final, three-year protection order.

The next six days proved to be the most difficult in her life.

An explosion of anger

Despite her aching neck and black eye, Lorraine Graves emerged from Family Court on South 11th Street, just off Market, feeling somewhat empowered.

"I'm letting him know I'm not playing no games with him," she said.

It was a Tuesday at about noon. She wasn't expected at work until 1:30 p.m. Plenty of time. She stuffed the court papers in her black leather purse and headed for the 13th Street entrance to the Market-Frankford El. She rode the train to the 69th Street Terminal. Then she caught a bus to the Yeadon day-care center where she worked for $6.55 an hour.

Work at the Yeadon day-care was the usual. Wiping runny noses. Breaking up fights over toys. Dishing out snacks.

But Graves was distracted.

The guy who did this to her had been a friend at first. His cousin lived near her and she'd see him around the neighborhood. Their friendship was mostly one-sided. He'd come over to her house and lament about an ex-girlfriend he still loved. She'd console and comfort him, tell him to try to move on. Then, over the summer, he did move on - or so she thought.

They started dating. But the night he came over to her house drunk, he again brought up his ex-girlfriend. It was 3 a.m. She was tired. She wanted him to leave. She was annoyed. "How long are you going to be going through this?" she questioned. He exploded in anger.

Now she had to confront him with the temporary protection order and a summons to come to court for a hearing.

Graves' terror

In Philadelphia, unlike everywhere else in the state or region, victims bear the burden of serving their attackers with the court paperwork.

Outside the city, officers with the sheriff's department or local police department are solely responsible for the job. The victim either drops off the paperwork at the police station or the court transmits the papers directly to police, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

In New Jersey, the law surrounding protection orders says that "at no time shall the plaintiff be asked or required to serve any order on the defendant."

In Philadelphia, victims like Graves are given the papers and essentially told, "Go take care of it."

Sandy Clark, associate director of the New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women, called Philadelphia's process "illogical" and "outlandish."

"It really makes no sense," Clark said. "The court says, 'Yes, I think this person is dangerous to you. I'm going to restrain them from you but here's the order. Now go give it to them.' "

Though Pennsylvania law states that any "competent adult" can serve the paperwork, most victims here do the job themselves because they don't have money to hire someone or they don't have a friend or relative willing to risk their safety to help, police and victim advocates say.

Philadelphia, however, is unique because of the extraordinary number of people who seek protection orders. Of the nearly 40,000 cases filed statewide in 2005, 34 percent were filed in Philadelphia, the highest rate in the state, court statistics show.

With such a large number, even victim advocates say it would cost too much, drain too much manpower and take too much time if the police department or some other city entity were charged with tracking down 14,000 alleged abusers each year and serving them with court papers.

Because the task can be so perilous, victims here can ask police to escort them to the perpetrator's home or workplace. And more than half typically do.

Police helped serve about 7,100 protection orders in 2005.

"A lot of officers get hurt, not just serving orders but also handling domestic-relations calls," said Capt. Sonia Velazquez of the force's victim-services unit. "It's an emotionally charged situation. There is a propensity for violence, and it's a large percentage of their work."

Graves touched her sore nose and swollen cheeks and knew there was no way she could face her former boyfriend alone.

In truth, she didn't really know him well, but her instinct told her he'd get mad when she slapped him with the paperwork.

Turned out, her instincts were good.

'She better call me'

After work, Graves made her way from Yeadon to the 35th Police District, the station closest to the North Philly house where her former boyfriend lived with his mom.

She arrived to find several other women waiting for police escort to serve protection orders. She took a seat.

By 8 p.m., Graves was tired of waiting. She decided to go to the mom's house alone and then call 911. A squad car arrived in 20 minutes. She told police she was scared to knock on the door. They instructed her to wait across the street. Just give us a nod so we know we got the right guy, they told her. They went up to the door. A woman answered.

Moments later, the officers crossed to where she stood and told her the guy's mom said he wasn't home. She'd have to try again, they said.

She later learned the officers had been mistaken. The man's mother could have signed for the papers. But she didn't know that then.

Capt. Velazquez said her unit had stepped up training in recent years on how to serve protection orders, but it's a constant challenge to keep all officers, especially new ones, up on the law.

"As officers change and supervisors change, things don't always get passed down," she said. "It's not a perfect system. We have to do training to get every [officer] current and well-informed."

The next morning, Graves got her two youngest kids off to school and then called the Coca-Cola bottling plant, where her alleged attacker worked as a forklift operator. If she couldn't catch him at home, she'd serve him with the papers at his workplace, she thought.

She asked for his work hours, but the person who answered the phone refused to tell her.

She went to work, and when she got home that evening, she learned that her former boyfriend was raging-mad. He had called her house several times. He threatened to harm her. He ranted about how she had the nerve to bring the cops to his "mama's house."

" 'She better call me,' " Graves said he told her daughter's friend, who answered the phone. " 'Tell her, "I'm gonna do what I gotta do." ' "

Graves felt pure terror. What was he capable of? Did he have a gun? she wondered.

The worst part was not knowing the answers.

"I don't know what is next. I really don't, and I don't want to be around to find out," she said.

For the first time, she doubted whether she should have sought a protection order.

"This is making him more angry and he wants to come after me even more," she said. "I don't have nothing to secure me and I'm scared."

Advocates for victims said Graves' case is typical. Menacing threats and acts of violence can - and often do - escalate once the alleged abuser is confronted with court paperwork.

"Domestic violence is about power and control," Capt. Velazquez said. "When victims file for a protection order, they're asserting their rights and being empowered to take charge of their lives. So the perpetrator is losing that power and control over them, and they tend to go more ballistic and the violence does increase."

This was Graves' fear.