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Restraining orders by telepresence -- and why the law needs to catch up with tech

Matt Weinberger | Jan. 19, 2015
Pushing technology into the legal system could help protect more victims.

internet gavel keyboard

Over the last four years, St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Passaic County, N.J. has helped 90 victims of domestic violence get 39 restraining orders, all from the emergency room and without their ever needing to set foot in a courthouse. That's  thanks to off-the-shelf Polycom videoconferencing technology and a partnership with a local Passaic County judge's office. 

That number may seem really low -- barely even a drop in the ocean, when you consider that nonprofit Safe Horizon estimates one in four American women (and more than three million men) will face domestic violence in their lifetimes. And it is low. But it's also a light pointing the way forward, even as it spotlights how far the law has to go to intelligently apply technology to real problems faced by millions of Americans. 

Domestic violence is a serious American problem -- a U.S. Department of Justice study in 2000 found that 1.3 million women and 835,000 men were physically assaulted by a partner every year. There's little to suggest those numbers have gone down in the intervening decade and a half. If anything, they may skew low. 

A major tool for victims to fight back is the restraining order, which ideally provides a legal protection against the perpetrator. But they can be hard to get, and harder still to enforce; the kinds of people with restraining orders against them aren't exactly rule-abiders, according to Psychology Today.

Even so, it's helpful when hospitals like St. Joseph's allow patients to get restraining orders. When victims are in the emergency room, and the trauma is still fresh, there's a higher likelihood they'll take the extra step and confer with a judge. At the same time, once a victim is in the hospital and talking to health workers, the perpetrator has a nasty tendency to get scared that their crime will be made public -- putting the victim at even greater risk. 

"We know the most dangerous time for a victim is when they get help," said Roberta Valente, vice president of policy at the National Domestic Abuse Hotline.

The setup at St. Joseph's -- up and running since mid-2010 -- is simple: There's a webcam at the hospital and a matching one in a conference room at a Passaic County courthouse, where a judge talks the victim through their complaint. The advantage of using video conferencing is that the judge can get a better sense of the victim's state of mind and the situation at hand. For younger victims, especially, talking to a judge via video chat is mundane. Similarly, the staff sees the system as another tool in their arsenal, not complicated technology  that requires special training. 


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