Rocks struck the brown vinyl exterior of Deyli’s Durham home last November. Like a baseball player, her ex-boyfriend pitched each rock with a grin as she crouched behind the faded couch in the living room with her mother.
While yelling “Dumb b——” and other profanities in Spanish, he toggled between anger and sadness. Their relationship now over, he begged her to believe that he hadn’t cheated on her.
They had been apart for three months, but he was not ready to let go.
“He didn’t take it well,” Deyli, 19, said in a phone interview as her mother interpreted her Spanish. The 9th Street Journal is not fully identifying Deyli for her protection. “We didn’t work as a couple anyways. The cheating thing was just another reason I needed to break up.”
With the screen door closed for protection, Deyli’s father opened the front door to scare the 22-year-old away as he continued to launch rocks at the house from the lawn.
“Leave!” the father yelled in Spanish.
Three weeks later, on a Wednesday morning, Deyli was in Durham County domestic violence court, seeking a one-year protective order against the ex-boyfriend. Her father stood beside her.
Throughout the hearing, the soft-spoken Deyli constantly looked to her dad.
But Judge Nancy Gordon had bad news: “This court can’t help you,” she said.
Deyli was one of the plaintiffs in court that morning seeking protective orders against people they once loved. But she left court with the same temporary restraining order she came in with.
Deyli’s journey in court began 10 days earlier, when a judge approved a temporary protective order against her former partner. In such cases, the Sheriff’s Office is supposed to serve the order to the defendant within 10 days. By then, both the defendant and the plaintiff must be present at what’s known as the return hearing. That’s when a judge decides whether to extend the temporary order to one year.
But if a deputy cannot deliver the temporary order to the defendant, the entire process comes to a halt. A defendant can’t show up for the return hearing if he doesn’t know that the restraining order exists. And then, by law, a judge cannot make a decision about the year-long order.
Which means that plaintiffs like Deyli show up for the return hearing only to learn that the court must postpone the proceeding until the defendant is served. And that may never happen.
In 2021, Durham County deputies attempted to serve orders 1,039 times but were successful on 442 occasions. That’s a 58 percent failure rate.
It was a marked increase over 2019 and 2020, when the failure rates were 39 percent and 43 percent, respectively.
Sheriff’s Office statistics from January to September of 2022 showed that only 18 percent had failed, although conventional wisdom holds that domestic violence reports typically increase significantly during the winter.
In an email to The 9th Street Journal, Durham County sheriff Clarence Birkhead said that two deputies in his domestic violence unit serve protection orders. Patrol and transportation deputies also serve orders if needed.
Asked to elaborate, Birkhead did not provide details as to how or when patrol and transportation deputies are assigned to help the two-member domestic violence unit.
Durham County’s challenges mirror the rest of the state’s, said Nisha Williams, legal director at the NC Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCCADV).
“You only have but so many people available to do the service,” she said.
In Durham, the Sheriff’s Office typically attempts to serve the order at least once before the return hearing date. In Deyli’s case, that meant that a Durham deputy showed up at her ex-boyfriend’s listed address, but no one was apparently there.
The problem is that deputies are generally unable to try again to serve the order before the return hearing date.
However, according to Birkhead, “90% of Domestic Violence Protective Orders are being served before the 10-day hearing date.” Sheriff’s Office spokesman David Bowser later clarified that the 90 percent rate referred to service attempts.
Greg was in court the same morning that Deyli and her father were.
He was there seeking a year-long protective order against his cousin Laura. According to court documents, after Greg told Laura not to contact him in August, she called him seven times in 20 days. In that same period, she called his stepmother 14 times and his father 21 times.
Nobody called her back.
“Laura’s a lunatic,” Greg said. The 9th Street Journal is not fully identifying Greg to protect his family’s privacy.
Their families had been close but had a falling-out earlier this year. Since then, Greg told the court, Laura has instigated conflict and harassed family members. One time, she demanded Greg give her a free tattoo at his parlor. After Greg refused, she repeatedly called, texted, and left him voicemails.
She threatened to break into his house. Another time, she said she would hire someone to hurt his girlfriend.
But after Greg secured a temporary protective order against Laura, deputies weren’t able to serve her. So, like Deyli, the judge had bad news for him too that Wednesday morning: “This court has not acquired jurisdiction to be able to help you.”
Since the pandemic, staffing shortages have crippled the Sheriff’s Office. Last year, Birkhead told radio station 97.9 The Hill that the office was 75 employees short of its intended capacity.
But when The 9th Street Journal asked about staffing, Birkhead referenced a recent community forum during which a North Carolina domestic violence specialist said, “Durham knocks it out of the park every single time,” referring to the Sheriff’s Office successfully serving protective orders.
Others maintain that staffing shortages are indeed a problem.
“The Sheriff’s Office, especially in the past two years, has had a very hard time with staffing and with allocating resources to service,” said Gigi Warner, Durham Legal Aid Supervising Attorney for Domestic Violence and Family Law.
She added: “The deputy, whose primary job responsibility was to get orders served, they are now having to do many other responsibilities because of staffing shortages.”
The upshot, she said, is that “getting defendants served is an issue.”
Deputies didn’t find Deyli’s ex-boyfriend at the address she gave the court during her initial hearing 10 days earlier.
“It’s important that you have the best address possible to be able to help the police find him,” Gordon said.
In Deyli’s case, it’s unclear exactly why the deputy could not find her ex-boyfriend, but she is confident she gave the best address. “The address that we gave out is the address where he lives at,” she said in Spanish.
“He might have been at the shop?” she asked, referring to the auto repair business where her ex-boyfriend works.
Williams, of the NCCADV, said this is a common problem for deputies. Defendants “aren’t at home when law enforcement is there to serve them.” Sometimes, she also noted, “the defendant is actively hiding.”
And sometimes defendants won’t answer the door.
According to court documents, the Sheriff’s Office does ask which time of day the defendant is typically at the home and work addresses provided. In an email to The 9th Street Journal, Bowser said, “With all civil process—lawsuits, writs, [domestic violence protective orders], etc.—DCSO makes multiple service attempts before returning process unserved.”
Nonetheless, Williams said, “if you don’t have law enforcement around the clock, trying to get that service, it’s going to take a while.”
In an interview, district court judge Amanda Maris, who rotates regularly through domestic violence civil court, said, “It’s not just about having more bodies. It’s about the sheriffs having all the information they need to have the correct address.”
Deputies successfully served orders 373 times in 457 attempts between January and September of 2022, according to data from the Sheriff’s Office. But when they fail, Williams says, “deputy sheriffs need to be able to re-attempt service at different times before the return hearing date.”
Greg chuckled in open court when the judge said deputies had been unable to find Laura. “They’re [Laura is] probably just bouncing around Charlotte with some random dude,” he said.
The Sheriff’s Office works with local law enforcement in other counties and states to serve defendants. Laura will be added to the list.
This story was published through a partnership between the INDY and 9th Street Journal, which is produced by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.
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