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Behind the numbers

HEN SHE LOOKED at the numbers of protection-from-abuse orders that are issued in Philadelphia, longtime victim advocate Carol E. Tracy said she was alarmed.


at the numbers of protection-from-abuse orders that are issued in Philadelphia, longtime victim advocate Carol E. Tracy said she was alarmed.

Although Philadelphians apply for far more protection orders than citizens in any other county in the state, a sharply lower percentage of those petitions are granted by judges here, she observed.

Just over one out of four petitioners in Philadelphia obtain a final protection order. Meanwhile, in nearby Delaware County, half of all petitioners get an order. In Montgomery County, that number is nearly 60 percent.

Tracy said that she was further stunned that the number of protection orders issued by Philadelphia Family Court has declined significantly in recent years - a 24 percent drop from 2000 to 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

"We were really shocked by the numbers," said Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project. "Then we started backtracking and found that not only are Philadelphia's numbers low, but they have been declining over the years."

Tracy said that she's both troubled and puzzled by the numbers. But other advocates said they believe that Family Court judges suffer from "compassion fatigue," a numbness to the plight of women desperately seeking refuge from abuse.

"Unless you have a black eye or broken bones and bruises and welts, then you're not a victim in their opinion," said Julie Avalos, program manager of Congreso's Latina Domestic Violence Program.

Avalos and other advocates said judges interpret the abuse statute too literally and are blind to less visible types of abuse.

But some court officials, judges, lawyers and other victim advocates disagreed.

Each year, the city's Domestic Relations Branch of Family Court, located on 11th Street, off Market, gets swamped with some 14,000 new protection-order cases.

"I'm telling you, they just shovel in," Judge Edward R. Summers said. "If you gave out every order, you'd have the whole city papered with orders and the orders would be meaningless."

Summers is one of two judges assigned to hear 30 to 50 protection-order cases daily. He and Judge Ida K. Chen have the difficult job of determining which cases are legitimate and which are false claims of abuse rooted in ulterior motives, including spite.

At first glance, the court statistics suggest that Philadelphia judges toss out numerous cases after siding against the victim.

But, Summers and Chen are forced to dismiss hundreds, if not thousands, of cases each year because the victim failed to show up for a court hearing, victim advocates and court officials said.

"The truth is, we have thousands of people who have gone through the trouble to get a temporary order and we don't see them again," Tracy said. "So we feel like we've been doing all this work, all of this advocacy, and we are in the same place we were when we started."

Nearly 70 percent - about 9,000 - of the 13,481 cases filed in 2005 were either dismissed by a judge or withdrawn by the victim, statistics show.

From 2000 to 2005, the number of cases dismissed or withdrawn increased by about 20 percent, while the number of cases filed remained relatively constant, statistics show.

Margaret Theresa Murphy, supervising judge of the Domestic Relations division of Family Court, said she'd like to work with the Women's Law Project to conduct a more extensive study.

"I think it's better to understand the problem if you can," Murphy said. "It doesn't mean you are necessarily going to change the problem."

A 2006 report by the Philadelphia Women's Death Review Team found that a significant number of women killed by a partner or spouse had filed for a temporary protection order and didn't follow through. Several victims were repeat filers, the report found.

There are many reasons victims don't return to court. Victims often reconcile with the abuser, for the sake of love or for economic reasons. Some victims are beaten up after trying to leave their abusers and decide it's safer to stay in the relationship. Then there are the kids to think about, victim advocates said.

"I think child custody is a huge piece of why victims stay," said Molly Callahan, director of the Women Against Abuse Legal Center. "A lot of times abuse victims know that if they are in the house with the abuser, they can protect the children. If they leave, there is a good chance the abuser will get some kind of partial custody."

But victims also don't go back to court simply because obtaining a protection order is burdensome and time-consuming, usually requiring them to take at least two full days off work.

"Having to return over and over at some point, a victim might say this isn't worth it: 'I can't pay for child care,' 'I can't afford the transportation,' 'I can't take another day off from work,' " said Cynthia Figueroa, executive director of Women Against Abuse.

And Family Court is perhaps one of the most inhospitable buildings in the city.

By 8:30 a.m., the line to enter the building is usually half a block long. The security checkpoint at the door has a jail-like feeling. Guards wearing white latex gloves rifle through purses and bags for weapons. In one week alone, guards confiscated 88 weapons, including knives, screwdrivers and box cutters, court officials said.

No food or drink is allowed in the building and there are no public vending machines, which means that victims and their children must go hours without anything to eat or drink. On a recent fall morning, a security guard hassled a woman who tried to sneak in a banana.

For safety reasons, friends and family who come to support victims are routinely turned away, even though it's a public building. They're told to wait outside. People sit on sidewalks pocked with spit and gum in the rain, cold and heat.

Victims who come to file for a temporary protection order are sent to another line that zig-zags to an information desk where they must tell clerks why they're there. Then they're sent up to a dingy second-floor room where they file petitions for a temporary protection order, most without help from an attorney or victim advocate.

Once they get a temporary protection order, victims are responsible for figuring out how to serve their alleged abuser with the court paperwork. Then they must return to court for a hearing on a final order. While waiting for their case to be heard, victims are separated from their attackers by nothing more than a room partition on wheels.

Then they have to stand a few feet from the defendant and make their case before a judge on their own.

"It's a big burden to have a victim, who may be very traumatized, represent herself," said Stephanie Gonzalez Ferrandez, former supervising attorney of the Family Law Unit with Philadelphia Legal Assistance, which represents low-income residents.

"When people get denied a protection order and they really should have one, often I think it's because they have trouble getting their story out - they're nervous, they're upset," she said. "Abusers are often very smooth and charming."

On top of that, victims who don't speak English well struggle to express themselves, even with the use of a court-appointed interpreter, she added.

Victim advocates said that they have seen a few cases in which judges erred in not granting a protection order to a victim who truly needed one. But in observing Family Court for five days, the Daily News did not witness any such case. In fact, a few plaintiffs seemed to be abusing the system, either looking to gain a leg-up on a pending child-custody case or to evict someone from their home.

Matthew Kennedy, 28, said he was victimized by the court system when his girlfriend got a protection order against him and then took over his West Oak Lane house.

He had met her at a bar, fell in love and asked her to move in. Then he found out that she was cheating on him and told her to get out. She accused him of raping her, had him arrested and filed for a protection order. While he was in jail, he lost his job as a security guard and she forged his signature to withdraw hundreds of dollars from his checking account. After posting bail two months later, he came home to find his belongings on the curb, said Kennedy, showing photographs and copies of forged checks as proof.

The day after he got out of jail, the woman went to Family Court and asked a judge to withdraw her protection order against Kennedy, which prohibited them from living together. A judge told her she had to move out because Kennedy owned the house.

"Her whole big thing was just to try to take control of my house," Kennedy said. *

Staff Writer Dave Davies contributed to this report.