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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.

"From my perspective, the technology is the easy part," said Jane Tsui-Wu, CIO of the St. Joseph's hospital system.

The much bigger challenge comes from the specificity of Passaic County law. If  the victim is still around -- during business hours, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. --  and  the patient lives in Passaic County, and  the perpetrator lives in Passaic County, and  the incident took place in Passaic County, and  the victim is sheltered in Passaic County, then  a judge can maybe discuss issuing a temporary restraining order (TRO). In New Jersey, a TRO can be upgraded to a full restraining order with the presentation of more evidence, as a New Jersey law firm helpfully lays out.

It's not exactly the nail in the coffin of domestic violence, but it gives victims more legal avenues to protect themselves. If nothing else, Tsui-Wu said, just making the call to a judge can be helpful in building a case down the line. 

"It takes certainly more than one intervention by a health service worker" before most are even willing to make that call, Tsui-Wu said. 

The next step, Tsui-Wu said, is to work more closely with the court system to make the program available around the clock, with someone always on call to issue TROs. More TROs served means more victims protected. But that will depend on increased  engagement by the justice system; the technology is already available. 

In the meantime, Tsui-Wu likes having this tool in her hospital's toolbox, as health workers, nonprofits, the police, and the court system work to stem the problem of domestic violence. Tsui-Wu's team is working with more hospitals in New Jersey to get similar setups elsewhere, and she noted that other hospitals in the U.S. have similarly small, modest programs in place.

St. Joseph's has been able to take advantage of local laws that allow flexibility when seeking TROs. While laws vary from state to state and county to county, most jurisdictions require a victim to actually go to a courthouse, which can place a victim at risk.

Historically, police and medical professionals have teamed up to help domestic abuse victims using technology, according to the Hotline's Valente. In the 1990s, police officers in rural Washington State counties who got called out to answer a domestic dispute -- and who wanted to make sure a perpetrator actually left the house -- would call a local judge, who then faxed a court order to the police precinct, she said. The cops would drive back to town, pick it up, and return to the scene with more legal leeway to ensure the safety of the victim.

This is just the "logical outgrowth" of those kinds of initiatives, Valente said.


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