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Auditor’s report finds barriers, inequities for people seeking protection orders in King County

People seeking a protection order – a legal restriction to contact from a harassing or abusing individual – in King County face complex processes, insufficient help and racial disparities in outcomes, according to a new report from the King County Auditor’s Office. The findings were presented to the King County Council’s Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee.

The audit, which looked at protection order petitions in King County Superior Court between January 2016 and June 2021, found that while many petitioners received temporary orders, fewer received full protection orders. And even after new state requirements take effect, some barriers in King County could persist, including limited support for people who do not speak English.

“People seeking protection orders and those responding to them deserve systems that are equitable and meet their needs,” said King County Auditor Kymber Waltmunson. “We are pleased to be in the position to help identify ways to achieve those improvements.”

Full findings include:

  • Protection Order Processes are Complicated: The goal is for protection order proceedings to be accessible to self-represented petitioners, but the process set by the state can be complicated and time consuming. The process is a multi-step legal process, with multiple forms and a minimum of two court hearings.

  • Protection Order Outcomes: Of the 5,512 petitions filed in Superior Court in the 18 months between January 2020 and June 2021, 78% resulted in a temporary order and 35% obtained a full protection order.

  • Racial Disparities in Outcomes: From 2016 to mid-2021, Black and American Indian petitioners were less likely than other petitioners to obtain full protection orders. Only 33% of Black petitioners and 34% of American Indian petitioners obtained full orders, compared with 37% to 49% of petitioners of other races.

  • Role of Advocates and Attorneys: Petitioners are more successful in obtaining a full order when they have an attorney or advocate, but most individuals do not have this help. Between 2016 and mid-2021, only 9% of petitioners (across all types of orders) had an attorney. Advocates in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office who assist petitioners experiencing intimate partner domestic violence provided detailed filing assistance to only 11% of domestic violence protection order petitioners (and other assistance to about half of domestic violence petitioners) between January 2020 and mid-2021.

  • Barriers in King County: Even after new state requirements are implemented, some barriers in King County could persist without additional improvements. Unless addressed, these types of barriers can make it difficult for individuals to navigate the process and may contribute to racial disparities in outcomes, including: limited resources to provide personalized assistance, gaps in language support for non-English speakers, inconsistent information on County websites, and lack of regular data analysis.

  • Limited Audit Access: King County Superior Court did not choose to fully participate in this audit, so auditors did not have the full and unrestricted access to all persons, property, and records that are granted to them by King County Code. Instead, they based their conclusions on observations of public court proceedings, interviews with individuals in other agencies who play key roles in Superior Court’s protection order processes, and reviews of publicly available documents about Superior Court’s processes. With this approach, auditors were able to see protection order processes as a person going through the process might see them.

The audit makes 10 recommendations, including:

  • Superior Court should establish a workgroup or other collaborative entity with authority and accountability for continuous improvement of protection order processes to collaborate with key stakeholders (e.g., law enforcement, petitioner advocates, public defenders).

  • The continual improvement authority should improve data tracking so that barriers and disparities in outcomes can be identified and addressed.

  • The continual improvement authority should develop and implement a plan to improve assistance available to self-represented protection order petitioners and respondents throughout the process (such as advocates and helpdesks).

  • The continual improvement authority should facilitate the implementation of the new state legislation governing protection orders in King County.

  • King County’s protection order-related websites should be revised and harmonized so members of the public can easily find accurate, clear, consistent guidance about the protection order process.

  • Superior Court should improve its language access plan to address the needs of protection order petitioners and respondents. For example, the plan should provide a translations or language assistance notices for vital forms and communications, a publicly communicated process to assist non-English-speaking petitioners in completing required forms, technical support in other languages during virtual hearings, and a process for translating protection orders for non-English-speaking respondents.