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Civil protection orders are an important tool to help keep people safe from violence, abuse, harassment, unwanted contact, and other harms. As a result of a state law passed in April 2021 and adjustments required by the COVID-19 state of emergency, protection order processes in King County Superior Court are in a period of transition. As the County implements new legal requirements, it has the opportunity to also reduce barriers to access that the new law does not address. Our audit identified barriers, such as limited support for protection order participants who do not speak English and insufficient information provided for participants throughout the process. We also found disparities in outcomes, including that Black and American Indian petitioners were less likely to receive a protection order than White petitioners. Overall, a user-focused and collaborative continual improvement process could help address barriers and facilitate the effective implementation of the new state law.

Watch the presentation (12:26)

Summary

Harassment, stalking, domestic violence, sexual assault, and other types of abuse are prevalent in society. For example, an estimated 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men across the United States have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. In King County, domestic violence homicides in 2020 and 2021 were more than twice as high as the rates in the prior four years. Research has shown that protection orders can be effective tools to help keep people safe from interpersonal violence and harassment when the protection order process is responsive to user needs and coordinates the issuing, serving, and enforcing of orders.

Washington lawmakers passed legislation in April 2021 to improve access to protection orders across the state. However, even after new state requirements are implemented, some barriers in King County could persist without additional improvements. For example, there are gaps in language support for participants who do not speak English, and county websites do not follow leading practices for usability, such as describing processes in plain language. In addition, the County provides only limited resources to help participants navigate the protection order process. The process typically requires filing legal documents and appearing at a minimum of two hearings, and many petitioners pursue a protection order without assistance from an attorney or advocate. Unless addressed, these types of barriers can make it difficult for individuals to obtain a protection order and may contribute to racial disparities in outcomes. For instance, we found that from 2016 to mid-2021, Black and American Indian petitioners were less likely than White petitioners to obtain a full protection order.

No county entity conducts regular data analysis to identify disparities in who receives protection orders or other areas for process improvements. A more user-focused and collaborative approach to managing protection orders across the County would facilitate efforts to effectively implement new state requirements and help address barriers for participants.

In this report, we make recommendations to address barriers for participants and to create user-focused and coordinated continuous improvement processes for protection orders.

Audit team

Cindy Drake, Mia Neidhardt, and Brooke Leary worked on this audit. If you have any questions or would like more information, please call the King County Auditor's Office at 206-477-1033 or contact us by email at KCAO@kingcounty.gov.