23 Feb COVID-19 and the Courtroom: Domestic Violence Survivors Adapt to Virtual Hearings
A few weeks ago, as Waanda was working with WTLC’s Legal Advocate to prepare for her upcoming in-person restraining order hearing, her Advocate recommended that she reach out to the court to make sure everything was on track for the hearing. During their meeting, Waanda made the phone call from a WTLC landline, since she did not own a phone, and to her surprise, the judge’s clerk let her know that the hearing had been changed from an in-person format to now being entirely remote and virtual. This came as a shock to Waanda because the information had not been updated online and she hadn’t received any notification from the court, as this was a fairly last-minute change. While Waanda was thankful that her Advocate recommended her to call the court, Waanda felt concerned because she didn’t know how she was going to attend the virtual hearing.
For starters, Waanda didn’t own a cell phone or a computer. Further, Waanda’s roommates were all scheduled to be home the morning of her hearing, and she really preferred to attend the virtual hearing from a location without anyone present, given the sensitive nature of her situation. Feeling tears welling up, Waanda started to feel overwhelmed, and poured out her concerns to her Advocate.
Waanda’s Advocate smiled and said, “We’ve got you covered!” and proceeded to explain to Waanda that WTLC would be able to help her facilitate her virtual hearing and that the Advocate would even be able to be present as a support person, just like at an in-person court accompaniment.
Throughout 2020 and into 2021, WTLC’s Legal Services Department has continued to constantly look for new ways to adapt our services to the ever-changing needs of survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic WTLC’s dedicated team of Legal Advocates have worked diligently to provide hearing preparation appointments and court accompaniment for restraining order hearings to as many survivors as possible.
Due to the ongoing public health crisis, there has been a dramatic shift away from in-person court hearings to virtual hearings – conducted over a computer or mobile device. This has understandably posed some challenges to the survivors we work with who may or may not have access to a computer/mobile device, internet access/WiFi, and who may not even have a safe location for them to attend the virtual hearing.
WTLC’s Legal Advocates booked Waanda a room at WTLC’s Center located in Fullerton, CA, which is open to the community, on the morning of the hearing. Before her arrival, an Advocate set up a portable WiFi device to the room so that Waanda could log onto the internet from an old laptop she had been able to borrow from one of her roommates. Waanda arrived an hour early to WTLC’s Center that morning so that her Advocate could help her create a Teams account to be able to log-on to the hearing. Waanda’s Advocate also helped her create an email address so that the court would be able to send her paperwork and communicate with Waanda directly.
After the judge heard from both parties, they granted Waanda’s requested 5-year restraining order and the judge thanked Waanda’s Advocate for being there with her. Later, the court emailed Waanda a copy of the granted restraining order and her Advocate was able to print copies for Waanda to take with her.
Today, Waanda is feeling relieved and empowered knowing that despite the obstacles she faced, with the help of her Legal Advocate, she was able to successfully accomplish her goal of obtaining a restraining order against the person who caused her harm.