How one county attorney’s office extends protective orders when the respondents are in jail and notifies crime victims and their families about offenders’ statuses in prison
A note from Suzanne McDaniel, TDCAA Victim Services Director: Welcome to the new Victim Services Section of The Texas Prosecutor journal, which features your articles on victim assistance as well as updates on resources and referrals. We envision the section as a central place to share innovations and solutions. Please contact me at [email protected] with your ideas and suggestions for future articles.
Cooperation and collaboration are key in providing victim assistance, especially in domestic violence cases where victims are particularly vulnerable upon the defendant’s release. In this issue we are presenting a team effort from the Travis County Attorney’s Office, the nonprofit Texas Advocacy Project, and the Victim Services Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. These three entities worked closely to develop a solution to the issue of victim vulnerability upon the release of the offender that all counties may find useful.
In 1999, the Texas Legislature amended §85.025 of the Texas Family Code to expand the remedies available to victims of domestic violence. The amendment extended the length of protective orders from one to two years and provided an additional automatic extension in cases where the respondent (defendant or offender) is incarcerated on the order’s expiration date. This article will explain the procedures employed by the Travis County Attorney’s Office for extending a protective order when a respondent is incarcerated and will highlight the importance of collaborating with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), your local legal aid offices, and other non-profit organizations who provide assistance to victims of domestic violence, and to provide a framework for prosecutors’ offices across the state to expand their services to domestic violence victims.
Section 85.025(c) does not leave the decision to extend within the judge’s discretion. Rather, it mandates that a protective order be extended for one year after the respondent is released from incarceration if the respondent was incarcerated on the original date of expiration. The Texas Legislature should be applauded for responding to the needs of DV victims (as our elected County Attorney David Escamilla says, “This statute is critical in protecting victims in what would otherwise be a very dangerous transitional period”); however, §85.025(c) leaves most attorneys in the dark as to how to proceed. The statute simply provides for the extension; it does not set forth any guidance as to how the order should be extended and issued to law enforcement. My fear is that many attorneys and prosecutor’s offices across the state are not extending protective orders simply because there are no specific procedures to follow. Our office has adopted procedures and forms for the extension of protective orders under these circumstances but has only been able to do so with the help of TDCJ.
Because §85.025 is not discretionary, the process for extending the protective order is an easy, uncontested matter. The statute does not require that either party be notified before an order can be extended. However, we have found that informing applicants and respondents of this extension in the language of the final protective order decreases confusion and violations after the respondent is released from jail. All of the final protective orders we draft expressly state the expiration date followed by a statement about the automatic extension. We also spend time in court explaining the provision to our applicants and respondents to further minimize confusion and put the respondent on notice that the order could be in place for longer than two years. We rely on applicants to inform our office if they know the respondent is incarcerated when the protective order expires so we can begin the process of extending the protective order.
When an applicant notifies our office that the respondent was or will be incarcerated on the date the order expires, we send a request for information to TDCJ Classification and Records querying the date of incarceration and the projected release date. TDCJ has been extremely responsive to our requests and usually faxes the information to us within a couple of days. We have also created a Motion and Order Extending the Protective Order to present to the court once the respondent’s incarceration and release information is verified.
The importance of obtaining a written order extending the protective order from the court lies in enforcement. Without an extension order, law enforcement is forced to rely upon the expiration date written in the final order. Once the court has signed the extending order, the order needs to be issued in the same manner as a final protective order so that local law enforcement can then enter the new expiration date into the national database. Then law enforcement across the nation will have access to that information should the applicant travel or relocate.
Failure to enforce protective orders sends the respondent the message that we are not taking the orders seriously and places the victim in further harm. I encourage and invite each prosecutors’ office to tailor our forms (which are available for download at www.tdcaa.com) and adopt policies and procedures that address protective order extensions pursuant to §85.025(c). In jurisdictions where this is not possible, TDCJ, in conjunction with the Texas Advocacy Project, has created its own system for notification and a set of pro se forms for victims who must proceed by representing themselves.
TDCJ’s Victim Services Division utilizes our Victim Notification System (VNS), which is a confidential system that allows registrants to receive written information regarding an offender (also called a respondent).
Registrants include crime victims, surviving family members, witnesses, or concerned citizens. Registrants are added to the VNS by either their completed Victim Impact Statement (VIS) that was included in the offender’s penitentiary packet or by calling, writing, or e-mailing TDCJ directly. Individuals can be added to this system only for offenders who have been received by TDCJ Correctional Institutions Division (CID) or state jail.
The VNS provides more than 65 points of possible written notification regarding several phases of an offender’s incarceration, including his discharge or release on parole or mandatory supervision. These notifications have typically been distributed via letters, though TDCJ is adding an option for registrants to receive them via e-mail.
Because TDCJ could not identify each registrant (possible applicant) who has a protective order, our notification staff identified notification letters and e-mails that were related to an offender’s direct discharge or release on parole/mandatory supervision. We then incorporated language regarding the extension of protective orders in those letters/emails along with referral information to the Texas Advocacy Project. (We will address the importance of the referral later in this article).
It is important to realize that information regarding the extension of a protective order is included in all of our VNS notification letters and e-mails dealing with an offender’s direct discharge or release on parole/mandatory supervision. This includes notifying registrants who may not have a protective order against the offender. We also include information on Texas Family Code §85.025(c) on our website and in our brochure, “Your Rights, Your Voice, Your Participation.” Once a registrant is added to the VNS, she receives a letter with this brochure.
Furthermore, all offenders are notified of the amendment extending the length of protective orders. A notice is attached to an offender’s release certificate or discharge paperwork.
In addition to our written notification system, victims, surviving family members, witnesses, concerned citizens, criminal justice professionals, and victim advocates can contact Victim Services Division staff by calling 800/848-4284 or 512/406-5900 (in Austin). This service is available Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Our phone staff received training on the protective order process and the amendment extending the length of protective orders. When necessary, our staff will discuss the protective order process and extension of protective orders with victims and provide appropriate referrals.
Referrals are also a key component in the VSD’s role. We might provide all the accurate information a victim needs to get an extended order entered, but if a victim is not referred to an organization that can assist her through the process, the information may be useless. The VSD refers appropriate victims to D’An Anders at Texas Advocacy Project in all of our written notifications and, as needed, also makes verbal referrals. (Anyone needing assistance with extending a protective order may contact Ms. Anders at 888/325-7233.) Based on statistics from VSD’s phone staff, 456 victims were given information on protective orders and a referral during fiscal year 2008 and 612 in fiscal year 2009.
Editor’s note: This article was written with contributions from the Texas Advocacy Project and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Victim Services Division. Please also note that Travis County’s sample forms are available on our website; just look in this issue’s articles in the Newsletter Archive.