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You are here News Editorials The stakes in domestic abuse cases are dire and often dangerous

The stakes in domestic abuse cases are dire and often dangerous

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The stakes in domestic violence are often dire and dangerous

A subtle shift in legal lingo seeped its way into some courthouses in recent years, throwing a veil of obfuscation over a toxic threat to justice.

Litigants who cannot afford a lawyer in civil procedures, including victims of domestic violence desperate for restraining orders that might protect them from abusive partners, are now often called “self-represented.” That’s a misnomer. In fact, they are unrepresented — they have no legal right to court-appointed counsel — and the consequences may be deadly.

So it was for Adrianne Oyola, the teenage mother of a 7-month-old son named Aaden, who filed a “Relief from Abuse” affidavit in Connecticut Superior Court a day after her high school graduation, in 2015, seeking temporary protection from the boy’s abusive father. “I fear for my and my child’s safety, he could hurt my child, he has told me,” she wrote. “He has told me he could make my son disapear [sic] anytime of the day. … He told me he would put me in the ground and put something on me to make me [disintegrate] faster.”

The temporary restraining order was granted, without a hearing, requiring the infant’s father to keep his distance for just two weeks, as is customary in Connecticut and elsewhere. But when Ms. Oyola returned to court seeking to extend it — this time with a courtroom hearing — a judge gave short shrift to her sworn statement. She never elaborated on the verbal threats from baby Aaden’s father that gave rise to her fears — not their frequency, nor their context, nor the terms and tone in which they were delivered — as any competent lawyer would have prompted her to do.

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