MEMPHIS, Tenn. — For domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking victims, the courts offer only one legal remedy to prevent future abuse and harassment: an order of protection.
“He said, ‘I knew I should have killed you when I had the chance.’”
Those are the words of a domestic violence survivor. We are hiding her identity to protect her.
More than two years ago, she broke up with her then-boyfriend. She told FOX13 he repeatedly harassed her and eventually threatened her life.
She was advised to get an order of protection from the courts, but she quickly learned that was almost as gut-wrenching as the abuse itself.
"The wait itself took forever,” she explained.
“We’ve got a huge problem here in Memphis and Shelby County,” acknowledged Olliette Murry-Drobot.
She is the head of the Family Safety Center. Getting an order of protection for domestic violence begins in her office.
“I stay up at night trying to figure out how I’m going to cover payroll,” she told FOX13.
The Family Safety Center is a non-profit operating on $2.7 million. Their six counselors serve nearly 220 victims every month, more than 2,600 a year – 85 percent are women.
Down Madison Street, the Shelby County Crime Victims Center serves another 600 clients each month who are facing harassment not domestic in nature.
That pressure is sometimes felt by the clients.
“That was a process that is so nerve-wracking when you’re running from somebody,” the survivor told FOX13.
Once at the centers, victims must provide personal and detailed information about the perpetrator, in hopes of being granted a temporary order of protection. If they don't know enough about the perpetrator or don’t have the information, the perpetrator can’t be served an order to appear, so the process is halted until they do.
If that person lives in another county, victims often have to pay up to $100 for them to be served, or their process ends there.
“My staff continues to say they run into certain barriers over and over again,” Murry-Drobot told FOX13 while shaking her head.
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Transportation, child care, and financial resources are common reasons victims don’t see the process all-the-way-through.
“What percentage of your clientele struggle with those issues,” FOX13’s Winnie Wright asked.
“I would say about 65 percent,” she answered.
Some can’t go back home.
Victims and children are often sent to shelters, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. In other cases, victims leave home expecting shelter placement, then there’s no room.
“The victims are telling us they need more support,” Murry-Drobot said as we sat inside her sunny, but tight-knit office. “That emergency housing is great for thirty days, but what do I do for the next six months.”
These thoughts often lead the victim back to the abuser.
We visited 201 Poplar on a Tuesday morning. For the hundreds seeking an order of protection each week, court began promptly at 9 a.m. on the second floor. The entire process is filled with self-doubt and angst.
“What if I just leave,” the survivor asked herself daily. “Would I have to start over? What if I don’t go through with this?”
Many victims cannot take a day off work to await their appearance. And in many cases, they have to appear several times.
“Every day I wanted to give up. Sometimes twice a day. Even when you get into the courtroom in the judicial system, it’s still so much."
She was granted the order, but two weeks after it expired, he was harassing her again, so she went back to court. This time, she was denied.
“I tried to get an order of protection and they won’t even help me. How much more do they need,” she asked.
“Do you feel like the system, in some ways, is broken?” Winnie Wright asked her.
“Very much so,” she answered. “To the point where, does someone have to die for them to fix the situation? It shouldn’t take a life for a change.’
“Did that piece of paper, that order of protection make you feel safe?” Winnie followed.
“No, she answered bluntly. “It's not like it’s going to be a bullet-proof vest, that walks around with you 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week.”
An order of protection did not save Karen Qualls. The Memphis woman was last spotted alive running from her ex-boyfriend, Cedric Wilson. He was indicted earlier this month in her murder.
Winnie asked the survivor, "What needs to be fixed?”
Without a moment’s pause, she answered, “honestly, everything. From when the participant comes forward, all the way up-to-the judicial system.”
Murry-Drobot said real change will come when elected officials listen to stories from survivors. She encourages concerned residents to call those local officials, especially considering the budget process is happening right now.
Throughout the process of this investigation, Winnie Wright tried to get numbers on how many orders of protection were granted and denied in Shelby County last year. The Assistant County Attorney replied to that request, saying "Shelby County Government does not maintain any type of database that tracks that information.”
Cox Media Group