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Family Law Attorneys Seek Improved Results from Court Orders


In Hartford, Conn., attorney Nancy Tyler sought and received a restraining order against her former husband, Richard Shenkman, who had been threatening her for three years during the unraveling of their marriage and subsequent bitter divorce. Unfortunately, the court order telling Shenkman to stay away from his ex-wife did not stop him from allegedly kidnapping her from the parking lot of her law firm and holding her hostage in their South Windsor, Conn. home.

Tyler escaped by unscrewing a bolt that attached her ex-husbands makeshift restraints to the basement wall. Shenkman was subsequently arrested.

Reporting for the Connecticut Law Tribune, Christian Nolan says the case has highlighted the debate over whether laws protecting victims of domestic violence do enough to actually protect anyone.

"I think domestic violence laws definitely need review," says Jennifer Sadaka, an attorney practicing in Middletown. "Some of the decisions I’ve seen, it just amazes me sometimes."

In Connecticut, there are nearly 19,000 active protection orders in place, and another 1,500 court-ordered restraining orders, according to state officials. Protective orders are usually issued by a judge following the commission of a crime by an abusive party in a relationship. A restraining order is meant to be more preventative, as it must be requested by a victim and granted by a civil court judge.

Last year, 4,647 court orders of protection or restraint were allegedly violated. The resulting offense is either a Class D felony (the lowest type) or a misdemeanor offense, depending on the specifics. The felony version carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, while the misdemeanor tops out at one year. In both cases, the maximums are rarely employed.

Sadaka recalls one case where an estranged husband ignored an active protection order six times, driving past her home and confronting her at the courthouse. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail. Upon release, he promptly violated the order again, this time receiving six months in jail.

Rep. Michael Lawlor, co-chair of the state legislature’s Judiciary Committee, says that he believes the state’s domestic violence laws to be among the country’s best. Acknowledging the grim potential of the Shenkman case, he says there is always room for review and refinement.

"We need to learn from these tragedies, obviously, but there is no foolproof solution to this," he says. "Spotting these cases is like finding a needle in the haystack. There are literally tens of thousands of cases where restraining and protective orders are issued in Connecticut, and maybe there’s a handful that result in this kind of violence."

Heidi Opinsky, another family law attorney, disagrees. She holds up New York State as one example of a stiffer policy.

In that state, verbal threats alone, with no harassment, menacing, or stalking, can lead to a restraining order. The trouble with Connecticut, she says, is that the statute says no order can be issued without evidence of imminent physical harm, body injury or assault.

Corrine Boni-Vendola, a New Haven, Connecticut attorney, acknowledges the ultimate reality of many protective cases.

"The court order is just a piece of paper. You’re the only ones who can protect yourselves," he tells clients.

Victims at risk should take their own steps, including avoiding places frequented by the person they are seeking relief from, staying with friends or family instead of alone, and being proactive in contacting police should the threatening person appears. By making use of both legal and common-sense measures, victims can give themselves the best possible defense against dangerous encounters.

Source: Connecticut Law Tribune

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