The Grand County woman had less than 24 hours to go over all of her evidence — without help from an attorney — before she would try to convince a judge that she needed a permanent protective order.
She also had to know how to object if the opposing lawyer confronted her with personal photos and information to attack her credibility.
And she had to be ready, emotionally and logistically, to question her abuser, who she felt had tried to convince her that she wasn’t a victim.
After lots of preparation — with unusual help from advocate Tess Barger — and a lengthy court hearing, the woman was granted an order that required her abuser to stay away from her, said Barger, director of client services for Seekhaven. The nonprofit helps survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Grand and San Juan counties.
“Having that validation from the judge of, ‘Yes, I see your experience for what it is, and I believe that you deserve protection from this person who hurt you,’” was important for the woman to feel safe again, Barger said.
This was Barger’s first case after she completed Utah’s new Certified Advocate Partners Program last year. And thanks to that program, Barger was able to assist her client in ways she wasn’t able to before.
Previously, victim advocates in the state could not tell a person which protective order to apply for, how to fill out the forms or assist them in preparing for court. Barger found this “very frustrating,” she said, because she had the knowledge and experience to help people, but she wasn’t allowed to give legal advice because she’s not a lawyer.
“I just feel so terrible when a victim comes and says, ‘Well, I applied for a protective order, but it was denied. So, I guess they didn’t think I was abused enough.’ I just cringe,” said Susan Griffith, executive director of Timpanogos Legal Center in Utah County. She’s also an adjunct professor and director of the Domestic Violence Intervention Clinic at Brigham Young University Law School.
“It’s like, no, … that’s not it,” she said. Rather, that person may have chosen the wrong form, she said, or not known what information a judge was looking for.
That’s why Griffith and her team at Timpanogos Legal Center created the Certified Advocate Partners Program, made possible through the “regulatory sandbox” that the Utah Supreme Court formed to help Utahns access legal help.
Six victim advocates from across the state — who work for community organizations, prosecutor’s offices and police departments — went through the training last spring, and Griffith said they plan to continue and grow the first-of-its-kind program in the future.
For Barger and her colleagues, “this is something that we’ve been talking about wanting for so long,” she said, to fill “this huge gap.”
Choosing the right order
To understand how this new program works, Griffith said, it’s helpful to compare it to physician assistants.
“The physician assistant learns a slice of the pie,” she said. “They haven’t gone to all of medical school, but they’ve learned how to do their role very, very well.”
That is “the same thing we’re doing,” Griffith said. “We’re not training the victim advocate how to practice all of law,” but rather “how to do the right things on protective orders.”
The pandemic has increased the need, as service providers in Utah have seen a rise in people seeking help from domestic violence, as lockdowns were put in place in 2020 and people stayed home to curb the spread of the virus. And some families experienced domestic violence for the first time, Griffith said, pointing to a study from BYU.
There are roughly 13 different kinds of protective orders in Utah, Griffith said, so choosing the right one can be overwhelming for people who are unfamiliar with the process.
Different types of orders in Utah
Cohabitant abuse protective order
Mutual protective order
Dating violence protective order
Sexual violence protective order
Child protective order
Civil stalking injunction
Jail release agreement
Pretrial protective order
Sentencing protective order for domestic violence offense
Permanent criminal stalking injunction
There is also the temporary ex parte cohabitant abuse order and the continuous protective order that can result from a defendant receiving jail or prison time, according to Susan Griffith, executive director of Timpanogos Legal Center.
Someone might read “cohabitant abuse protective order” and think they don’t qualify if they haven’t lived with the person who hurt them, said Devin Shakespear, a victim advocate for the Kane County Attorney’s Office, who was certified through the program. But there are other criteria, she said, such as having a child together.
Another misconception, Shakespear said, is that when people think of domestic violence, they automatically picture some physical act, such as a punch or slap. Another situation, though, could be if there was a heated argument, and the perpetrator threw a chair and made a hole in the wall, she said.
A victim advocate is trained to understand these nuances, and can ask the right questions to figure out the best path for their client, Shakespear said.
When someone is going through trauma, it can be “really difficult” to try “to fill out an eight-page document that has a bunch of legal jargon on it,” Barger said. She’s also had clients with severe concussions, who were sensitive to light and needed to keep their eyes closed. So Barger helped them fill out the application, explaining “the gravity of their situation” to the judge.
Victim advocates are also trained to support victims emotionally, as they navigate the legal process, Barger said.
“They may need to hear one, two, three, four, five, a dozen times, you deserve to be safe,” she said. “You deserve for others to understand the necessity of you getting this protective order. You deserve for your voice to be heard.”
Finding an attorney
After victims experience domestic violence, they often have to make decisions quickly, Griffith said. How long will the person who hurt me be in jail? How will I pay rent? What happens if one of us loses our job? How will I take care of the kids?
“They have a million different worries at the same time,” Griffith said, and finding an attorney to help them get a protective order is often “way down the list.”
People may not be able to afford a lawyer. Plus, finding an attorney can be tricky, especially in rural areas outside the Wasatch Front. Barger estimates there are a handful of practicing attorneys in her area, so the likelihood that they would have a conflict in representing a client in a protective order case is “pretty high.”
“If you file a request for a protective order on Friday afternoon,” Barger said, and the next protective order court session is the following Tuesday, “we have less than two business days to essentially turn around and get them appointed an attorney who can prepare for the case and be ready to represent them in court.”
Utah Legal Services, a nonprofit law office with offices in four cities, is a great resource, Barger said, but it has “only so many people who can serve our area.” And while its employees offer representation in court, they don’t help with filing for the initial temporary protective order, she said, leaving a gap that often only advocates can fill in Barger’s corner of the state.
“My main priority is always trying to get someone legal representation. I see myself as that backup option,” Barger said.
But the “assurance and relief” she feels now that she can be that backup option is “so crucial,” she said. Barger still can’t represent her clients in court, but she can make sure they’re not alone.
Between June and October, the six advocates who went through the program provided 111 services to just under 60 people, according to Timpanogos Legal Center. Out of all the protective orders they worked on, only four were denied.
Griffith said her team is collecting numbers to compare to data from Utah’s Administrative Office of the Courts, to see what difference the program makes in getting protective orders approved.
From her perspective, getting victim advocates involved early on “can make a total difference in the outcome” of a case, she said.
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.