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Domestic violence advocates want online court option to stay

Domestic violence survivors seeking protective orders in Texas have been able to attend court online because of the COVID pandemic and advocates want that practice to be permanent.
Advocates want domestic violence survivors seeking protective orders in Texas to permanently have the option of attending court online.

Survivors of domestic violence seeking protective orders in Texas had the option to attend court online because of the COVID pandemic — and advocates say that option should become permanent.

Mary Beth Kopsovich is the director of intake and assessment services at The Family Place, which helps survivors of family violence in Dallas. She said virtual services became part of the routine at The Family Place.

“This is part of how we operate,” she said. “The pandemic has certainly changed how we do business.”

That includes virtual court proceedings for protective orders. These orders can restrict people accused of domestic violence from contacting or coming within a certain distance of their alleged victim. Texas law also says people subject to protective orders — except for those in law enforcement — can’t possess a firearm.

Kopsovich said the Dallas County District Attorney’s office still offers survivors the option to participate in protective order court proceedings online. Texas state senator Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, filed a bill in November for the upcoming legislative session that would make that a state law.

Advocates say attending court online is safer for survivors of domestic abuse.

“Survivors don't have to face their abusive partner face to face in a courtroom or potentially being followed into the parking lot,” Kopsovich said.

Instead, survivors can attend court for their protective orders with advocates by their side in a room at the Family Place. They also don’t have to look at their abusers if they don’t want to — Kopsovich said advocates can set up the Zoom court session to only show the speaker, which hides the abuser’s face.

Domestic violence survivors are also seeking other online assistance — a recent report from The Texas Council on Family Violence found virtual services went up by 750% over the past two years. That includes counseling and therapy, which was provided online 54% of the time according to the report. Legal services were also provided online, with 93% of immigration aid and 79% of child support assistance being provided online.

Breall Baccus is a policy coordinator with TCFV. She said virtual services also remove barriers for people seeking protective orders.

“They don't have to look for childcare or take time off work to be able to attend that hearing and get that protective order in place when it's needed,” she said.

Christina Coultas is the CEO at Hope’s Door New Beginning, a family violence center with locations in Plano and Garland. She said she hopes virtual services for survivors seeking protective orders will continue to be available.

“Those are all things that would be great if we can hold on to them,” Coultas said.

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Caroline Love is a Report For Americacorps member for KERA News.

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Caroline Love covers Collin County for KERA and is a member of the Report for America corps. Previously, Caroline covered daily news at Houston Public Media. She has a master's degree from Northwestern University with an emphasis on investigative social justice journalism. During grad school, she reported three feature stories for KERA. She also has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Texas Christian University and interned with KERA's Think in 2019.