Story by: Parker Perry and Cheryl McHenry

Judge says number of protection violations is small, but experts urge victims to get safety plan in place first.

Montgomery County has seen a 40-percent spike in civil protection orders over the last four years, many of which were taken out by women scared for their safety and seeking help.

However, a protection order doesn’t always ensure harassment or violence will stop.

More than 2,000 civil protection orders were issued in Montgomery County in 2019. In 2016, fewer than 1,500 civil protection orders were issued.

Protection orders citing domestic violence now make up more than half the caseload of the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Court — more than divorces, dissolutions, annulments and legal separations combined.

A protection order can be issued by a judge in the domestic relations court and is filed when there is a belief a person may be endangered. The protection order is supposed to prevent a person from going near or contacting that endangered individual.

Anyone can come to court and file for a protection order— for free—and get an immediate hearing. A person who violates a protection order could be arrested or face court sanctions.

Montgomery County Domestic Relations Judge Denise Cross said protection orders do work in the vast majority of cases and result in a potential abuser staying away from a victim.

“We hear both sides and we make a decision. If that decision is this person needs protection, we absolutely want to make sure that the person is protected.” Cross said, adding that the number of protection order violations is “extremely small.”

She said anyone who feels endangered should first contact the police for immediate assistance and then file for a protection order.

The immediate period after a protection order is issued is the toughest time, Montgomery County Domestic Relations Court Administrator Jennifer Petrella-Ahrens said.

“Once the service of the order is given to the alleged abuser, that can be a trigger that really sets them off,” Petrella-Ahrens said. “If they’re already at a situation where they going to become violent with you, and now we’re saying that we’re stopping this and preventing you from doing it anymore, that can be the trigger that really fires up the aggressor.”

That is why Petrella-Ahrens cautions people to have a safety plan in place and be aware when an order is to be served.

“Make sure that you have the copy on you at all times, and if there’s any violation of this order to call the police immediately,” Petrella-Ahrens said.

‘She was full of joy’

Donna Brown was gunned down by an ex-boyfriend just a couple of days after filing for a protection order in July. Petrella-Ahrens said Brown’s death resulted in a large number of women coming forward and requesting a protection order from the court.

“I think people said, ‘You know what? If it can happen to her, it can happen to me too. I want to be protected,’” she said.

Authorities say Brown was murdered at the Family Dollar on North James H. McGee by Dennis “Dale” Haggins. Brown and Haggins had been in a relationship for about 10 years, her family said, but had broken up, and Brown was dating someone new.

That didn’t sit well with Haggins, her family said. On July 19, Brown filed a civil protection order request against Haggins, saying that Haggins was threatening her.

“He was basically saying, ‘If I can’t have you, nobody will,’ ” Shatina Anderson, Brown’s niece, said.

“She said that he had been threatening to kill her and that she got her locks changed at home,” Stephanie Dunn, Brown’s daughter, said.

On July 21, her family says Brown was cooking Sunday dinner when Haggins kept calling her. Brown’s twin sister, Dawn Dunn, said the two went to the store and Brown told Haggins where they were going so she could offer him a plate of food as a peace offering.

“She walked out to the passenger side to get the plate to hand it to him,” Dawn Dunn said. “That’s when he pushed open the car door, and I realized he had a gun in his hand.”

Haggins shot Brown and then himself.

Her family said they will always remember her for being a caring, loving person.

“She was full of joy,” Dawn Dunn said.

Civil Protection Order spike

The majority, about 75 percent, of all intimate partner homicides happen within three months of separation, said Jane Keiffer, executive director of the Artemis Center.

The Artemis Center is an advocacy group in place to help victims of domestic violence and their children by offering services such as assistance with the legal process and court outreach. One in four women and one in seven men have been physically abused by an intimate partner, according to Artemis Center statistics.

But sometimes going to the court’s office isn’t always the best idea, Keiffer said.

“Some abusers really uphold the law. So a piece of paper that says you can’t come around means something,” she said. “And there’s some that that doesn’t mean anything to, so we really kind of look at the entire situation and what’s best for this person.”

Keiffer said the decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, and the safety of the victim is a top priority.

According to statistics from the domestic relations court, more people are pulling petitions now than in recent history. In 2016, 1,463 protection orders were filed. That number has gone up every year since.

In 2017, 1,710 protection orders were filed, then 1,744 in 2018. And in 2019, 2,041 protection orders were filed.

What’s the cause?

The increase could be because of law changes that took effect in 2018 that allows people who are victims of dating violence to file for protection orders. Anyone who has been on a date with a person within the last year and in which there’s been some kind of violence can file for an order, Petrella-Ahrens said.

“The court had to make some adjustments,” she said. “We started adding a couple additional days or times of hearings, so we had more magistrates hearing more domestic violence now than we do any other case type.”

But officials are still trying to figure out why there has been a spike in civil protection orders.

“Several of us within the court and within the community meet on a regular basis to look at the kind of trends, and we have not pinpointed that,” Petrella-Ahrens said. “We don’t know if it’s more violence occurring and we’re just seeing it flow into the court, or is there more education?”

“Are people learning more? Are we talking more openly about this? Are we seeking out the help, coming to the court system? You know, as community members, that’s why the court is here, it’s supposed to be providing justice for all those we serve,” she said.

There are also local groups like Community Coordinated Response to Domestic Violence that aim to educate and protect women. Petrella-Ahrens, Artemis, Dayton police, the YWCA and about 20 other agencies are part of the group. They are working to establish a Family Justice Center that would bring all the various services for domestic violence under one roof, which would make it easier for victims to get help fast.

“It’s apparent that we have got to address this issue in our community and as an entire community,” Petrella-Ahrens said. “We have to come together. It’s time for us to take the health of our community back and provide a place where we can give those resources, those wrap-around services to our victims, so they can move into the survivor mode much sooner.”

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