One of the many side-effects of the national shutdown of the economy is that we all have been spending a lot more time at home. For some of us that meant that we would have the opportunity to be with our children more often. For others, however, the time spent at home unfortunately meant more time with a spouse, partner or other family member who would take advantage of this opportunity to act violently towards you or one of your children.
This is a bad scenario all the way around. Not only could that person cause a great degree of harm to you and/or your child, but your options to go elsewhere were very limited. “Safe houses” such as those belonging to friends may not be willing to shelter you during this pandemic due to concerns about spreading illness. Likewise, actual shelters whose stated objective is to house people who have been the victims of domestic and/or family violence may not be open right now either. Many of these places rely on donations and during a downturn in the economy those donations may be fewer and harder to come by.
So, in a time period where it is harder to escape your home, more difficult to find a place to stay where it is safe and trickier to find information you can rely on, what can you do to protect yourself and your children? The Law Office of Bryan Fagan would like to step up and provide you with information that can be the difference between a bad situation and an even worse situation. Our goals with today’s blog post are to provide you with an overview of how to go about requesting a restraining order and to give tips and tricks on how to keep yourself safe right now.
Don’t be a hero- call 9-1-1
I can’t emphasize enough that no amount of legal knowhow in the world will be able to keep you safe from an immediate threat of harm supplied by a family member. If you find yourself in an emergency situation then you should contact law enforcement to help. Tried and true 9-1-1 is one method to employ, the other would be your local sheriff/constable’s office. Keep these phone numbers around the house and in your phone in case you need them. Seconds matter in times like these.
Next, you should prepare a place in your house for you to turn if you are being attacked. I understand that this does not sound like something you want to plan on. Thinking about being abused is unpleasant. However, if you can find a place in your house where you can hide yourself and your kids in the event of an outbreak of violence then you will be better prepared than had you done nothing. Make sure your kids are aware of the location in the house where you recommend, they run if the need to do so arises.
Most courthouses are closed for most hearings- what can you do instead?
If you have read our website then you probably know by now that the courthouses in our area are closed for the most part. In order to cut down on the number of people congregating together in closed spaces the county of Harris and all surrounding counties have closed government buildings to the public. This means that cases that previously would have had hearings occur over routine matters can no longer get to a judge as easily. The question is: would the request for an emergency restraining order be considered routine?
In the event that you already had a court date set and are unaware of whether or not it is still going to occur, you should call the court and ask to the speak to the clerk of your court. The district clerk’s office in your county could probably assist you, but it would be more helpful to reach out to the clerk for your judge’s court. He or she can tell you for certain if there are any hearing dates upcoming in your case. Additionally, you could check the district clerk’s website to see if a hearing is pending.
Keep in mind that if your case is set for a hearing and is not postponed you would need to appear at the hearing or request a reset date with the court coordinator or clerk in advance of the hearing. Not appearing at the hearing, even if you have a valid excuse, can result in repercussions that are not pleasant for you. Your petition for a restraining order may be dismissed by the judge, or a default judgment could be issued in favor of the opposing party in your case. A dismissal of your case means you will need to re-file and start again. A default judgment is a judgment granting your opposing party any relief he or she is seeking, depending upon whether or not you were the person to initially file the lawsuit.
What if your matter is postponed or cancelled?
Many court cases have been cancelled across our area. Yours would not be the only case to suffer a postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This does not mean that you will not be able to have your case heard, however. It means that the location of your hearing may change. For example, your hearing that had previously been scheduled to occur in person at the courthouse may become a Zoom hearing if all parties agree to the change. If you do not agree, then it is likely that your hearing would be rescheduled for later this summer.
You would receive a notice from the court notifying you of the postponement in the same manner you learned about the hearing initially being set. That could be through your attorney or a letter sent to you from the clerk’s office. It is possible that a new hearing date has already been set and provided to you in the letter. Be sure to read the letter clearly and to hang onto the paperwork. Do not throw anything away at this stage.
What happens if you already have a temporary restraining order in place?
It would be a wise idea to call the court and ask them if the restraining order will be extended due to the inability for additional hearings on the matter to be held right now. If an extension has been granted by the judge then you should find out the expiration date. See if you can get something in writing from the court that verifies the extension.
What should you do if you get sick during this time period?
If you become ill with COVID-19 or any other sickness while you are waiting on a court date, you should contact your doctor first and foremost. Any details of your case take a backseat to your health. Again- this has always been the case, even before COVID-19 was a reality that we had to deal with. It would make sense for you to request a letter from your doctor that confirms your status if you test positive for the virus, however. In that case you should not attend a court date under any circumstances.
Contact the clerk of your court immediately upon testing positive. Provide them with documentation about your testing positive for the coronavirus. You may be able to have your case rescheduled even it the call comes at the last minute. The court can forward the letter or documentation to the opposing party in your case or their attorney. Follow up as much as it takes to ensure all the relevant parties receive this information.
Can you request a restraining order right now?
Restraining orders can be requested despite the closure of courts for most hearings. These orders are also known as protective orders and are temporary in nature. You should contact the courts in your county, free legal services or any other resource available to you (such as our website) for information on petitioning for a protective order and what needs to be included in your petition and request to do so.
The main question that you need to be asking, likely with the assistance of an attorney, is whether or not you qualify for a protective order. Have you experienced violent acts in the home, have the acts been committed by a member of your household or a person that you are in a dating relationship with? These are just a few of the questions you should be asking yourself before proceeding.
Could your temporary order become a final order in your family law case?
This is a question that we have been asked with some frequency as this pandemic has dragged on. Since temporary orders are not intended to last forever, the question is whether or not a temporary order could become a final order at the direction of a judge. Bearing in mind that court dates are few and far between at this time, it would make sense for this to be the case on some level.
You should check with your attorney or the court directly on whether or not temporary orders are being extended so that they do not expire before you can have a hearing on the matter to see if the restraining order can be made into a final order that lasts longer than a few weeks. Don’t just guess that the order is extended because of the pandemic. There is no guarantee of this.
What should you do in the event that the restraining order has been violated?
Again, contacting the police is the best option if you believe that you are in immediate danger. You could possess the most accurate and up to date information on the world of Texas family law, but if you are in immediate danger then this information will not help you.
If your protective order has been violated then the person who is addressed by the order can be arrested by the police for this violation. There are victim’s rights organizations and shelters for people in your position who can help you with keeping in contact with the police. Developing a safety plan like the ones that we described at the beginning of today’s blog post would also be a really smart idea.
You may need to keep important papers in a safe location that can be retrieved with ease in the event that you are attacked and need to leave your residence. Birth certificates, social security cards, passports and cash on hand are all important to have close by. A bag with clothing and toiletries is also a wise thing to have prepared and ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Closing thoughts on restraining orders during the time period of COVID-19
Above all else, you should prepare now for obtaining a protective order rather than trying to learn all you can after it is too late. When the time comes for you to attend a hearing or go to court you should have your paperwork prepared, representation lined up (if you are able to hire an attorney) and a plan in place to make sure that your children are safe. Absent this kind of preparation you will not achieve the end results that you hope for. This can have negative consequences for your family in the short and long terms.
If you have questions about the material that we have shared today please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free of charge consultations six days a week over the phone and online. These are great ways for you to ask questions and learn a great deal about Texas family law.
With information that is factual and helpful at a premium right now, our office wants to do everything we can to help. In days to come we will be posting additional blogs with information on how you can proceed with your family law matter during these uncertain times.