Our year-long On Your Side Investigation reveals how Ohio fails to enforce a law that could save lives.
When domestic violence victims leave their abusers, they’re 70 times more likely to be murdered.
But we found Ohio police officers fear arresting abusers who violate the protection orders that are supposed to keep those victims safe.
“I would wake up in bed and see a shadow of him standing over me . . . and he would punch me in the head and tell me that only whores sleep,” said “Jane.”
On Your Side Investigators decided to conceal Jane’s real name and identity because her estranged husband is a convicted abuser who has repeatedly threatened her life.
“He used to even shove the card of the person that he said that he hired to kill me in my face and tell me, ‘This is who's going to see you die’," she said.
When she left her husband earlier this year, Jane thought getting a civil protection order would keep her safe.
“It was presented to me as almost as if it was my armor, that it was my golden ticket to safety,” she said.
After all, law enforcement officers are supposed to arrest abusers when they violate protection orders.
But that’s not what happened to Jane.
“It is just a piece of paper,” she said.
Police reports obtained by On Your Side Investigators show Jane has called Northeast Ohio police departments close to one dozen times this year after her ex-husband violated her protection order.
According to the reports, he has harassed her at work, at home and has even showed up at the grocery store where she was shopping.
However, he has only been arrested once. Independence police charged him seven months after she filed a report after 5 On Your Side Investigators started asking questions.
“It’s not a perfect system by any means,” said Independence Police Chief Michael Kilbane.
Kilbane said Ohio law enforcement officers are forced to call the court where the order was issued before they arrest an abuser for a violation of a protection order.
The reason: Ohio has no central communication system containing current orders.
“There’s no instant way to tell whether or not it’s a good order,” said Kilbane. “We have to verify that."
The need to verify the orders creates dangerous delays.
“Sometimes, there’s some delay with court system or clerks getting back to us,” said Kilbane.
“In the meantime, victims are left hanging?” asked Investigator Sarah Buduson.
“They are,” he admitted.
Protection Order Registries
But that’s not the case in many states.
On Your Side Investigators found 29 states have created what’s known as a protection order registry or a similar system.
These registries are databases that include every current protection order and are accessible to every law enforcement officer in their state.
For example, just across Ohio’s southern border, West Virginia has one of the most comprehensive registries in the nation.
“I believe it is one of the most helpful tools to come around to law enforcement in a long time,” said Corporal Tony Craigo, domestic violence investigator for the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department.
West Virginia’s Way
“What the problem was is mainly that domestic violence doesn’t happen from nine to five,” said Angela Saunders, Director of Court Services for the West Virginia Supreme Court.
Saunders spearheaded the effort to set up the state’s protection order registry in 2008.
“There's no reason for a court to issue an order if we can't, if it doesn't do what it's supposed to do, and it's supposed to protect the victims,” said Saunders.
Working closely with law enforcement officers and court employees, they set up a system set up that requires courts to immediately scan protection orders into the registry.
The registry is accessible to every law enforcement officer in the state and verifying an order is as easy as searching Google.
Officers enter the name of the victim or defendant into the registry. If they get a hit, they can immediately arrest an abuser for violating an order.
At the time the order was created, West Virginia had the highest rate of domestic violence in the U.S.
The state was also reeling from a tragic murder that could have been prevented by a protection order registry.
Desmond Clark shot and killed his 19-year-old girlfriend, Nalisha Gravely, inside a Taco Bell in Charleston after she escaped from his car.
A police officer who pulled over the couple earlier the same day didn’t know Gravely had a no contact order against Clark.
Why Abusers Go Free
“Before the registry, to be honest with you, a lot of times, officers would not enforce protective orders,” said Craigo.
The reason may surprise you.
Officers fear making a mistake.
“As bad as that sounds, the courts still favor defendants, the court still favor protecting defendants’ rights more than the safety of the victim,” said Craigo.
“Officers are aware of that,” he said.
In other words, officers are more afraid of an expensive civil lawsuit sparked by false arrest than letting a dangerous abuser go free.
Kilbane said he is concerned about the department’s liability if a false arrest occurs.
The result: abusers are rarely arrested.
Independence police made just five arrests for violation of a protection order in 2015.
More Likely To Be Murdered
“If we can't have enforcement of our protection orders, then, you know, they are just pieces of paper,” said Monica Christofferson, Domestic Violence Manager for the Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court.
She said she often receives phones calls from frustrated domestic violence victims.
Among their complaints, law enforcement officers fail to arrest their abusers for violating their protection orders.
It scares her.
“Continued violations of protection orders are one of the indicators of domestic homicide, one of the indicators this could potentially escalate to a situation that is more volatile” she said.
A mother’s murder
A tragic example: the story of Emily Young.
The young mother was shot and killed by her estranged husband January 7.
It happened inside the couple’s SUV. The couple’s twin baby daughters were in the backseat.
"I definitely think there needs to be a change in the system," said Debbie Young, Emily’s mother.
LaReece “Wally” Woods was charged with the rape of another woman in Wayne County just days before he murdered Emily.
Wayne County prosecutors released him on a low bond.
They had no idea Emily was so scared for her life she had obtained a protection order against her husband in neighboring Medina County.
"If there was a database, that had all these protection orders in it, would things be different?" said Young.
She will always wonder.
“If there could be a change in the system, that would heal my heart a little bit,” said Young.
“I don’t know what safe means.”
Jane said she no longer calls police every time her husband violates her protection order.
“I’ve been failed miserably,” she said. “I feel as if I’ve been tortured by the system, but for being a victim.”
In spite of the charges filed by Independence police, he’s still free to walk the streets.
He still stalks her.
“If someone says 'stay safe,' it makes my skin crawl,” she said. “That 'safe' word is no longer in my vocabulary.”