Cumberland County court officials and officials with Army Community Service have formed a partnership to offer the eCourts Civil Domestic Violence System to provide a safer way for victims of domestic violence to get protective orders without leaving Fort Bragg. Provided by the Judicial Branch’s Administrative Office of the Courts, the system provides electronic filing for protective orders with the assistance of a domestic violence advocate, and the victim has total access to the district court community, including law enforcement, without the need to leave the safety of a secure location in the Soldier Support Center off Normandy Drive or compromise their privacy and confidentiality. Instead of multiple stops, the victim has one safe stop to seek protection.
“The ability to file electronically is the court system of the future,” stated Cumberland County Chief District Court Judge Robert J. Stiehl III. “By example, this project will alleviate a parent at Fort Bragg from having to load the car with children, drive the 12 miles to the courthouse and back, and shuffle between multiple offices to initiate a domestic violence civil protective suit.”
Judge Stiehl noted that subsequent hearings must occur at the courthouse. This pilot program is made possible through the cooperative effort of the Army Command and Army Community Services of Fort Bragg, Cumberland County Clerk of Superior Court Lisa Scales, Cumberland County Sheriff Ennis Wright, Rape Crisis Volunteers of Cumberland County, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, and the Cumberland County District Court Judges’ Office.
Fort Bragg is one of the first military installations in North Carolina, and one of the first in the country, to incorporate this electronic filing process for service members, dependents, and civilian personnel. Cumberland County residents will be able to file and initiate civil domestic violence protective lawsuits from Fort Bragg with the assistance of Army Community Services staff or the Rape Crisis Volunteers of Cumberland County Office.
Advocates will assist in the preparation of the electronically filed documents, advise victims of available community resources, and assist in facilitating a video conference with a district court judge reviewing emergency domestic violence protective order protections each weekday at 11:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Victims will need to appear at either of the two sites by 1:00 p.m. Otherwise, the Safelink Office, located in Room 340 in the Cumberland County Courthouse, is still available for walk-ins during normal business hours.
“Domestic violence eFiling is more efficient for victims, law enforcement, and the courts, and it improves public safety and access to justice,” said Judge Marion R. Warren, director of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts. “The system follows in the Judicial Branch's vision for eCourts and modernizing court technology systems statewide.”
The domestic violence eFiling process starts and ends at a domestic violence service agency that is separate from the courthouse. The applicant files the petition, is heard by the judge, and receives signed orders and notification regarding service on the defendant all while they are in a secure, remote location. All matters are conducted electronically and through live video feeds with judges, clerks, and sheriff’s deputies, while the victim receives services from the domestic violence agency, such as safety planning, housing, and child care.
The eFiling system saves time and reduces the risk of physical harm to individuals seeking legal protection by eliminating the manual handling of paper filings to the courthouse. Judges can view documents and sign orders quickly and more efficiently. Local law enforcement can access the system and search service documents, forms, and orders online to facilitate faster service. The system will send automated email and text messages to alert the proper parties as specific events occur in the case.
“I had to go through this process before and it was so confusing,” stated a domestic violence victim and user of this new system. “Being able to stay in one place makes such a huge difference! It is nowhere near as scary for me and my kids.”
In addition to Cumberland County, which went live June 4 of this year, Alamance, Davidson, Durham, Forsyth, Guilford, Onslow, and Wake counties are fully operational with the domestic violence eFiling system. The award-winning system, started in Alamance County in 2013, is expanding with funding through a three-year grant from the United States Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women (OVW). Once implementation concludes in 2019, the system will be live in 16 counties and serve more than half of the state’s population.
In 2016, the N.C. Department of Public Safety reported 110 domestic violence homicides statewide, of which 73 were female and nearly 80 percent of the offenders were male. In fiscal year 2016-17, there were 36,672 domestic violence protective order filings statewide. During fiscal year 2017-18, the N.C. Council for Women reported 112,427 victim calls statewide to domestic violence service providers. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 1.5 million domestic violence victimizations occurred nationwide in 2016, and additionally, more than half of all domestic violence incidents go unreported.