Why NC women with restraining orders for domestic violence are still being killed
In North Carolina, one person killed each year in 2018 and in 2017 had a protective order in place at the time of their death. In 2016, six domestic violence-related homicide victims had protective orders
By Tammy Grubb
HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. — Victoria St. Hillaire feared for her life.
She had been stalked and terrorized by an ex-boyfriend who had a court order to stay away from her and her family — and multiple charges for disobeying that order.
I am afraid of what's next and the safety for my family," St. Hillaire wrote when she sought a third domestic violence protective order on Oct. 9, 2019.
On Nov. 25, the 28-year-old mother and certified medical assistant was fatally shot by her former boyfriend as she arrived for work at UNC Family Medicine in Durham. The ex-boyfriend, 33-year-old Lequintin Ford, also shot and killed himself.
It wasn't the first time Ford had confronted St. Hillaire at her workplace or her Alamance County home. Court documents showed warning signs as early as 2015, when he assaulted her with a bat. Ford was arrested nearly two dozen times in the last two years, including for domestic incidents involving another woman.
When he died, Ford faced three new felony stalking charges, misdemeanor stalking and harassing phone call charges, and three violations of his domestic violence protective order. He had been jailed at least twice — first under $100,000 bail and then $250,000 — but was able to get out when a judge reduced his bail in November.
The conditions put in place at that hearing — that he wear an ankle monitor, be home from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., stay away from St. Hillaire's home and work — didn't protect St. Hillaire.
Her story is not unusual.
While some studies indicate that protective orders can prevent or reduce the severity of future abuse, the U.S. Department of Justice has not definitively answered the question of how effective they are. A 2003 federal Office of Justice Programs report still cited today noted that nearly half of all abusers charged with killing their partners had previous arrests, and nearly a third of the victims previously had called police.
Domestic Violence Common, Costly
One in 4 women and 1 in 10 men will experience physical, sexual or psychological domestic violence in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 41% of the female survivors and 16% of male survivors are physically injured as a result of domestic violence, the CDC reported.
The costs can be high, averaging $103,767 over a female survivor's lifetime for medical care, lost productivity, legal fees and other costs and $23,414 for a male survivor, the CDC reported. The cost to society: An estimated $3.6 trillion, based on the lifetimes of 43 million male and female domestic violence victims studied for a 2014 National Institutes of Health report.
Then there is the loss of life.
Roughly half of the female homicide victims each year — 3,268 in 2018 — are killed by a former or current male partner, federal data showed. Available data for male victims showed nearly 5% were killed by an intimate partner. Men were more likely to kill than women, federal data showed.
The N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which tracks the state's domestic violence homicides, reported that 53 people were killed in 2019, including four people in Durham County, two in Wake County and one in Orange County. While the same number of people were killed in 2018, the coalition reported an increasing number of homicides — averaging 77 — each year between 2013 and 2017.
The numbers include homicides involving both same-sex and opposite-sex intimate partners, but not domestic violence between non-intimate family members.
Do Protective Orders Work?
Most protective orders do what they are designed to do, domestic violence advocates said, but the key is an abuser who will follow the rules.
If this is an offender who doesn't want to go to jail, who cares about their reputation and wants to look good in the community, it's going to be a whole lot more meaningful for them than for someone who really doesn't care if they get arrested," said Kathy Hodges, deputy director of the Durham Crisis Response Center.
Sherry Honeycutt Everett, the coalition's legal and policy director, noted protective orders have other benefits, including tougher penalties for low-level offenses such as stalking and harassment, and child-custody arrangements.
More than 32,600 N.C. residents sought protective orders in 2018, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
Judges awarded protective orders — also called 50B orders in North Carolina — to 33% of the men and women who sought them last year, data showed, while another 23% voluntarily dropped their protective order petitions. The rest of the petitions were denied or involuntarily dismissed because the person seeking the order didn't show up for the hearing.
In North Carolina, 50B orders are only available to heterosexual couples who are living together, married, dating or divorced, or share a child. Same-sex couples can only get a 50B order if they live with their partner, leaving those who are only dating to seek a civil no-contact order, or 50C.
A 50C order limits contact between the parties and makes some crimes, such as stalking, a felony. However, unlike with a 50B, the offender cannot be arrested for violating the order or have their guns seized.
Judges issued just over 2,400 civil no-contact orders last year, or roughly a quarter of the 9,518 petitions that were filed, records show.
Survivors can endure months and even years of abuse before going to court, multiple studies show. Over half of those who have suffered repeated assaults do not report them to police, the National Crime Victimization Survey found, often because the survivor is trying to protect the abuser, fears what the abuser might do if arrested, or considers the violence a private or family matter.
The abuse can escalate when victims finally decide to seek a protective order or leave the abuser.
One study reported in the 2003 National Institute of Justice Journal found that 75% of female domestic violence homicide victims and 85% of women who experienced severe violence had left or tried to leave an abuser. Women who were previously threatened or assaulted with a weapon were 20 times more likely to be murdered, according to a separate study cited.
Deciding to Leave
Her partner was jealous and suspicious but only verbally abusive at first, Durham resident Deborah Williams said. When he began getting in her face, assaulting her and using his body to keep her from leaving, it still wasn't enough to make her give up the relationship.
That's why she didn't go to police, she said, when her partner approached her in the church parking lot after Bible study and grabbed her by the neck. A church deacon, who intervened after hearing her scream, escorted her home that night and asked her partner to take his things and leave, she said.
It wasn't the last incident, and over the five-year relationship, Williams sought four protective orders. Still, she sometimes met with her partner in violation of his no-contact order and skipped some of their domestic violence court hearings, Williams said.
My weakness in wanting things to work out, listening to convincing reasons why we should stay together, believing no one else is going to want me — all of those things played into me participating in him violating the domestic violence protective order," she said. "Then there were times that I tried to stay strong and ... would call the police to have him removed. For me, it felt like I was putting holes in my own credibility and that no one is going to believe me."
Survivors cannot be prosecuted for meeting or talking with an abuser under a protective order, but advocates agreed they can risk losing credibility with police and the court system. It also encourages some abusers to take protective orders less seriously, they said.
The turning point, Williams said, was when she saw the relationship affecting her son.
"Just knowing that the relationship that I was in was modeling an unhealthy model of what it means to date, what it means to be married, and that I could be setting my children up to repeat these habits," Williams said.
Williams has since moved, blocked her partner's number, and started writing again, publishing a book of poems and essays about "regaining your power." This year, she graduated with a master's degree from the Duke University School of Divinity.
The emotional and mental wounds will take a long time to heal, Williams said, but she hopes her experience will lead her to a way to help others.
"The saying that we don't go through what we go through just for our purposes, but to help other people, that would definitely be a true statement," she said.
Safety Plan Is Critical
Many survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and severe anxiety, according to a National Institute of Justice study. In general, female survivors who end up in the hospital emergency room "are more socially isolated, have lower self-esteem and have fewer social and financial resources" than other female emergency room patients, the study stated.
The legal process can exacerbate the isolation and terror, Hodges said. Not only must they explain how a partner has been violent and aggressive to a courtroom of people, but many also worry how their abuser might react.
People of color, those who identify as LGBTQ and immigrants who are in the country illegally may have additional challenges, from a higher rate of domestic violence to a lower likelihood that their story will be believed and supported. Those groups also may fear contacting police and court officials about a domestic violence situation because of institutionalized bias or fear of deportation, Everett said.
That's why a personal safety plan is critical, Hodges said. A safety plan can be tailored to address how the survivor and their children can be safe while living with the abuser, while preparing to leave the home, or once they have moved out.
Prosecutors also consider a survivor's needs, Durham County Assistant District Attorney Lindsey Spain said at an October forum. If there is no other evidence and the survivor refuses to testify, however, that may mean dismissing the charges against the abuser, she said.
Most violations of contact orders involve some kind of contact, Everett said, which can be hard to prove. Some, like Lequintin Ford, drive by or show up at their victim's home or workplace. Others may make contact indirectly through a third party or on social media, which Everett said presents new challenges as courts balance victims' rights with free speech rights.
Data collected by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation shows that one person killed each year in 2018 and in 2017 had a protective order in place at the time of their death. In 2016, six domestic violence-related homicide victims had protective orders.
Orange County Death in 1989 Sparked Reform
Protective orders are stronger now than when North Carolina first enacted its domestic violence law — Chapter 50B — in 1979, advocates say. An Orange County murder case sparked the call for more reform within the next decade.
Dawn Jolly was 25 when she sought a protective order against her husband Randall Jolly in 1989. Randall Jolly had become abusive and threatening, in one instance, chasing his wife's car down the highway as he fired a pistol. Just days before Dawn Jolly testified about the highway incident, shots were fired into her workplace, hitting her computer.
Dawn Jolly "became despondent over the apparent hopelessness of her situation and her inability to free herself from defendant, who continuously threatened and tried to dominate her," according to court records. "She found it necessary to conceal her whereabouts from the defendant. She moved her residence to a secret location and, in order to avoid defendant, traveled circuitous routes to and from work and (their daughter's) day care center; the places that defendant was certain he could find her."
Dawn Jolly didn't trust the legal system to protect her, co-workers said at Randall Jolly's trial. In a Burlington Times-News article, her co-workers recalled calling 911 on another occasion when Randall Jolly showed up at their office.
The deputy picked him up and let him go," Dawn Jolly's co-worker Judy Clark told the newspaper. "He said (Randy Jolly) was crying, and that he'd known Randy and his family all his life, he was a 'good boy' and wouldn't hurt anyone."
In September, Randall Jolly followed Dawn Jolly to the Hillsborough daycare and parked his car behind the brown Nissan truck she had borrowed from a friend. Witnesses said Dawn Jolly was crouched inside the truck when he leaned inside and shot her — three times in the stomach and once in the back.
As Randall Jolly drove away, Dawn Jolly fought for her life, aware of what had happened until she died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, according to court records. Randall Jolly was sentenced in 1990 to 20 years to life in prison. He was released in 2017.
Local, State Laws Changed
Superior Court Judge Carl Fox, who was district attorney at the time, recalled the public criticism of how the legal system had failed Dawn Jolly. The case forced the district attorney's office to take those crimes more seriously, he said, pushing for higher bonds and tougher conditions for someone being released from jail.
"We routinely asked that higher bonds be set in these domestic violence assault cases and asked for strict conditions in these 50B situations," Fox said. "And pushed (for) them, because sometimes the victim didn't want them (and) because you can't tell which ones of these people is going to commit a murder and which ones are not."
Dawn Jolly's murder prompted the creation of the Committee for Justice for Women of Orange County, which led to the founding of The Women's Center in Chapel Hill — now part of the Compass Center — and the Orange-Durham Coalition for Battered Women.
The committee also led to the creation of a domestic violence coordinator position in the Orange County Sheriff's Office. Amber Keith-Drowns, the current coordinator, works closely with victims navigating the court system to provide them with contacts and resources.
In 2017, the Compass Center served more than 6,000 men, women and children, including about 1,200 domestic violence survivors, executive director Cordelia Heaney said. That probably underrepresents the actual need, she said in an earlier interview.
I think that sometimes there's this idea that because Orange County is a somewhat well-resourced county that either domestic violence doesn't happen here or that all of the needs of survivors are already being met, and neither of those things are true," Heaney said. "Domestic violence doesn't discriminate. It impacts people regardless of race or class or religion or gender or immigration status."
Orange County agencies launched two programs in the last year, including a grant program that helps survivors pay a security deposit and rent, utilities, and moving expenses for up to 120 days. Since Orange County does not have a domestic violence shelter, many who need safe housing must go to Durham and other counties with a shelter.
Another program lets survivors apply online for a protective order from a judge instead of going to court. The e-file service also is available through the nonprofit InterAct of Wake County and at the Orange County Sheriff's Office in Hillsborough.
In Durham, domestic violence advocates are working with police and sheriff's deputies to implement the Lethality Assessment Program aimed at reducing domestic violence injuries and homicides.
The program, which also is being used in Mecklenburg, Wake, Buncombe, Alamance and Davidson counties, gives officers an 11-point checklist to assess domestic violence calls. Survivors whose answers indicate a high risk of domestic violence are put immediately in touch with local advocates. Previously, officers would just provide a card with a number to call.
Durham's program, which started in March, is bringing 100 clients on average each month to the Durham Crisis Response Center, program coordinator Jeff Whitson said.
"Instead of handing them a card and saying here's the number for a DV service provider, we're handing them a person," Whitson said. "They're bridging that gap between law enforcement, victim and (domestic violence) service provider."
Gun, Divorce, LGBTQ Laws
There also have been changes at the state level in the last 30 years, including the addition of a "warrantless arrest" that lets police charge someone even if the victim doesn't want to press charges or testify. A person arrested on domestic violence-related charges also can be held for up to 48 hours until a judge can set the bond for his release.
A more recent change is Britny's Law, which in 2017 made it easier for prosecutors to use a defendant's record of domestic violence against the victim to seek first-degree murder charges — punishable by life in prison or death. Previously, defendants could be convicted of a lesser crime with less prison time by arguing that they killed in the heat of the moment.
Tougher gun restrictions have proven to be a sticking point, despite studies showing that a domestic violence victim is five times more likely to be killed if the abuser has a firearm, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence reported. The center noted that nearly 1 million female survivors were shot at by a domestic partner, and roughly 4.5 million women were threatened by a partner with a gun.
In North Carolina, a proposed "red flag law" and other bills that would have given judges more discretion to take an abuser's guns away have died at the Legislature. N.C. judges can order a person to surrender his firearms only if that person has threatened or tried to use a deadly weapon against himself or a spouse, partner or child.
Despite the fact that we have made progress and that we are recognizing these issues as issues that are important to the state," Everett said, "it only goes so far when you start talking about other issues that become highly partisan and that people feel very passionate about, such as gun ownership and possession."
Other legal challenges could force the state to recognize same-sex partners who have dated but don't live together as being in a domestic relationship. N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein filed a legal brief earlier this year in the case of a Wake County woman who was denied a protective order against her ex-girlfriend. The N.C. Court of Appeals has not yet issued a ruling, Everett said.
Others are challenging the state's divorce laws, which require a married couple to live separately for one year before getting a final decree — even when there is domestic violence involved.
An Assault Every 9 Seconds
Still it's a race against time when a woman is assaulted every 9 seconds in the United States, leaving her family and friends with more questions than answers, advocates said.
Anne Kirkpatrick's family remembered her free spirit and "wicked sense of humor" after the 46-year-old was killed Sept. 8 in the front yard of her rural Orange County home.
The High Point native was well known for her love of animals and involvement in animal rescue and advocacy organizations, according to her obituary.
"As a five-year-old, she brought her mother a live mouse from outside, which made it clear to her mother that she would have a lifelong attachment to animals of all kinds," the obituary said. "As an adult, she never had fewer than 4 pets at any given moment. Anne had birds, bunnies, chickens, dogs, ducks and goats in addition to horses at her farm, and all were given her love and affection."
Over the summer, court records show Kirkpatrick had obtained two protective orders — one against her estranged husband and another against a boyfriend. The boyfriend, 58-year-old Timothy Parnell, violated his order twice by showing up at her home and calling her on the phone, sheriff's officials have said.
Kirkpatrick was preparing for a new job as the restaurant manager at City Kitchen in Chapel Hill, when she was killed.
A preliminary report from the N.C. Medical Examiner's office said Kirkpatrick was stabbed once and shot twice. She also had a long cut on her right forearm and wrist — likely from defending herself.
Parnell, who is charged with first-degree murder, is being held in the Orange County jail without bail.
The steady toll of domestic violence-related injuries and deaths, is frustrating, local advocates said, but awareness is growing.
Everett noted Gov. Roy Cooper's October announcement that cabinet-level state agencies now will let their employees use sick leave or vacation time for non-medical issues related to domestic violence.
Previously, state employees could use sick leave to deal with domestic violence-related medical issues, but had to use vacation time for other needs, including to attend court hearings, meet with a lawyer, or relocate.
I think we're doing a better job of educating people at all levels of society about what abuse is, about how prevalent it is, about how much of a role our official systems and government organizations — and even businesses and corporations — can play in trying to combat the problem," Everett said.
Hear one survivor's story in her own words:
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