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The 19th Judicial District Courthouse, which houses the East Baton Rouge Parish Family Court. Monday Oct. 23, 2017, in Baton Rouge, La..

Antoinette Dixon was scared for her life.

Her boyfriend kicked her, choked her, spat on her, beat her with the splintered leg of a wooden table and broke into her house, she told a court under oath in a request for protection.

Dixon, 42, was immediately granted a temporary restraining order and was told to appear at a hearing three weeks later. But when her court date arrived, she wasn't there.

She said that's because she works 13-hour days as a janitor and couldn't get time off to spend all day in court.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Family Court ordered her to pay $499 for her absence, dismissed her petition and let her restraining order lapse. She had no legal protection.

The Advocate identified at least 100 people in 2019 who, for various reasons, failed to appear at their court dates after receiving a temporary restraining order and were subsequently ordered by the East Baton Rouge Parish Family Court to pay hundreds of dollars in fines and fees.

The unexpected price tag has left multiple women — already struggling to reach financial independence from their abusers — with the same takeaway: “Don’t waste your time seeking a restraining order.”

That alarms advocates for domestic violence victims, who say fining those who claim abuse has a chilling effect and makes it less likely they'll seek help. They argue the practice only exacerbates the state's epidemic of violence against women.

Louisiana has the second highest rate of women murdered by men in the nation — a statistic that’s more than twice the national average, according to the Violence Policy Center — and homicide is among the leading causes of death for pregnant women in the state, according to researchers at Tulane and LSU. 

“Why would we prevent, prohibit or in anyway discourage domestic violence victims from seeking help?” said Ayn Stehr, a Baton Rouge attorney and social worker who has spent more than four decades in domestic violence advocacy. “There is no reason in this day and age for those barriers to exist.”

After a victim of domestic violence receives a temporary restraining order, a judge sets a hearing date within 21 days to hear from both the petitioner and the defendant and determine whether to extend the temporary order, end it or change it to a longer-standing protective order.

There are many reasons why a victim of domestic violence may not appear at that hearing, advocates say: a broken down car, a sick child, a minimum-job wage that offers little flexibility. One of the more common reasons is that a victim was threatened or intimidated against appearing by their assailant, Stehr said.

The court costs — which over time can add up to thousands of dollars — largely cover services provided by the Clerk of Court and Sheriff's Office and are especially devastating for poor women of color. A recent report commissioned by the Louisiana Legislature noted that the court system's reliance on fines and fees entrenches "poverty and racial disparities."

“I’m a single mom of three. I have a mortgage. I have a lot of bills. This is coming out of my household,” said one woman, ordered to pay $536 after she couldn’t find a babysitter on her court date.

Another woman, a single mother of four, owes the court $1,834. Her ex is set to go to trial in the summer on domestic abuse charges.  

The practice isn’t isolated to Baton Rouge. Judges across Louisiana have the power to order petitioners in domestic violence cases to pay court costs if they rule the filing is "frivolous” — an ambiguous legal term in state law that’s up to individual judges to interpret.

The sponsor of the 2006 legislation that added the statute, state Sen. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales, said he couldn’t see how a judge could rule a case was frivolous when neither the petitioner nor the defendant appears. He said the law was instead aimed at penalizing those who made false claims.

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However, of the four judges elected to the East Baton Rouge Parish Family Court, only one — Judge Lisa Woodruff-White — said she doesn’t cast costs on petitioners for simply failing to appear.

Woodruff-White said, “If the petitioner is not there, I do not believe I can determine whether or not the filing is frivolous.” She said victims often return to their abusers seven or eight times before they finally leave, and she doesn’t want court costs to discourage them.

The three other judges on the court — Hunter Greene, Pamela Baker and Charlene Day — did not say why they cast costs on petitioners who fail to appear. Greene said that without a specific “name or docket number or particular factual scenario,” he could not speak to “every possible reason that may warrant a finding that a petition is frivolous.”

Baker said the Louisiana Legislature should better define “frivolous” and that “advocates for petitioners and victims should open a dialogue and talk to us."

Lambert said, “I don’t know how you define ‘frivolous’ better than ‘frivolous.’ It’s cases without merit or worse than without merit.”

John Price, the executive director of Baton Rouge’s Iris Domestic Violence Center, said it would take “an incredible leap of faith” for a judge to declare a petition frivolous without the petitioner or defendant present.

The differences in approach among judges “speaks to Louisiana’s vast need for judicial education around the dynamics of domestic violence,” said Mariah Wineski, the executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Judges in Louisiana are required to attend 12.5 hours of continuing legal education every year. However, unlike nearly two dozen other states, there is no mandate that judges involved in domestic violence cases receive specialized training.

Stehr, the attorney and social worker, said part of the problem is that there is little communication among law enforcement, the courts and social service organizations in East Baton Rouge Parish on how to best support victims and hold offenders accountable. 

“We as a community, I think, are failing victims tremendously because we don’t have a coordinated community effort to address domestic violence,” Stehr said. 

The national Violence Against Women Act prohibits jurisdictions that receive certain federal grants from fining victims of domestic violence, including in cases where a petitioner fails to appear at a hearing. It's unclear if this practice jeopardizes Louisiana's funding. 

Multiple women told The Advocate that when they attempted to challenge the court costs at subsequent cost review hearings, they were told by courtroom staff to instead pay a minimum of $50 to reset their hearing date for another time. 

“Their main concern was the money. I didn’t even get a chance to talk to the judge at all," Dixon said, echoing the experiences of several other women.

At least three women separately said they were told by staff that if they didn't pay the $50 minimum, they would be sent to jail. In some cases, the court has issued bench warrants for women who failed to appear at the cost review hearings. 

“It made me feel like it's more about money than protecting women,” said another woman. 

Judge Baker said her staff "vehemently denied" ever making such a statement and emphasized that "nothing we do in this courtroom is designed to hurt our litigants."

Judge Greene said, "The court has never prevented a petitioner from appearing and having their case heard," noting that he is available and accessible if petitioners need to discuss their circumstances.


Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater