local02_thumbRestraining orders are up in state. Officials say economy sparked increase in domestic violence

As incidents of domestic violence rise statewide, East Hawaii has seen an increasing number of temporary restraining orders filed against individuals.

Temporary restraining orders, or TROs, are intended to protect individuals from harassment and abuse by requiring those named to remain a certain distance away, avoid making contact, or make limited contact at court-specified times.

local02-2_thumb-1Hawaii Family Court specifically requires that to file a TRO application, one must be related to their alleged abuser either as a current or former spouse, a family member, a roommate, an intimate partner or through a common child.

Due to those requirements, experts say TROs provide a fairly accurate way of tracking domestic violence rates.

Workers with the Department of Child and Family Service's (CFS) Alternatives to Violence program say that Hawaii is seeing an increase in domestic violence, due in large part to the weak economy.

"TRO rates and domestic violence rates really depend on factors like economic situation, socioeconomic status, stress levels, unemployment, and not having housing and transportation," said Heidemarie Koop, director of Hawaii Island Programs for CFS.

Those same factors have another, less-obvious effect, however.

"During times like this, when reports of domestic violence increase, there are a lot of situations which go unreported," Koop said.

The same situations that give rise to an increase in domestic violence, she said, also contribute to reduced reporting of domestic violence incidents, because victims' options are more limited than during a stable economy. Victims may not feel economically secure enough to leave an abusive relationship and risk fending for themselves and their children.

"Times are harder, and the question becomes, 'Where do they go? Are their children safe? Are they employed?'" Koop said.

local02-3_thumbAs a result, when rates of domestic abuse are on the rise, the problem may appear less serious than it actually is, she said.

Even so, a look at the number of TROs Koop's office has handled in the last year and a half reveals a definite surge in East Hawaii. CFS contracts with the state Judiciary to act as advocates for victims of domestic violence and help them in filing TROs, among other services.

Between July 2008 and March 2009, CFS's East Hawaii office provided helped with the filing of about 60 TROs a month. But starting in April and continuing through last December, TROs averaged more than 80 a month. The most recent quarter, Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, saw the most, with 260 filed.

That spike was mostly due to the harsh economy and the resulting stress it placed on families, according to Michelle Keiki, program supervisor for CFS. The effects of such stressors can be seen on a smaller scale during particular seasons of each year, she added.

"You see more family violence during the summers when the children are home," she said. "During the holidays, you don't see very much, because families are trying to keep it together, but the first work day after New Year's is always one of the busiest for us."

Keiki added that the East Hawaii department worked this year on 15 separate TROs on the first work day after New Year's.

The state as a whole showed a slight decrease in TROs filed between 2004 and 2008, averaging 4,577 a year. But in fiscal year 2008-09, 5,095 were filed in Family Courts throughout Hawaii.

In a telling comparison, the Big Island's per capita TRO filing rate is more than double that of Oahu's.

Koop said that is directly related to the island's higher unemployment rate, lower average per capita income, and other economic factors.

She added that her staff has noted a strange trend which they haven't been able to completely explain. While East Hawaii's TRO numbers have continued to rise, West Hawaii numbers have recently been on the decline.

In the last year, the West Hawaii office of CFS has gone from a high of aiding 130 people with TROs during the second quarter of fiscal year 2008-09 to a low of 85 in the second quarter of 2009-10.

Meanwhile, TROs have risen from 187 in East Hawaii during the first quarter of FY 2008-09 to 260 in the second quarter of 2009-10.

"It could be due to people's unwillingness to report incidents," Koop said.

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