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Protective orders can't assure safety, officials say

December 02, 2002|by RICHARD BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG - The shooting death of a Chambersburg-area woman has raised anew questions about the effectiveness of court-issued protection from abuse orders.

The victim, Joanna Plummer, had obtained such a court order against her estranged husband, Bruce Forsythe, on Nov. 13, less than two weeks before she died of gunshot wounds to the head and chest. Forsythe, 53, formerly of Fayetteville, Pa., has been charged with one count of first-degree murder in the shooting and is being held without bond.

The shooting occurred in mid-afternoon on Nov. 24 outside the couple's home in Guilford Township.

Judges in Franklin County issue hundreds of protection from abuse orders, say police and court officials. While most of those who are served obey the orders - violation of which make them subject to arrest - authorities say there is little police can do to stop someone bent on committing a violent act.

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"It's only a piece of paper," said Pennsylvania State Police Sgt. James Brown, investigating officer in the Forsythe case, "but it allows us to make an arrest without probable cause or a warrant."

Tim Wilmot, an assistant district attorney in Franklin County who prosecutes domestic violence cases, likened protection from abuse orders to laws that address driving under the influence of alcohol.

"They won't protect you from being killed by a drunk driver," he said.

Wilmot said protection orders "will deter some, but not others."

"They do help," he said.

Wilmot said it is hard to measure how effective the orders are.

The most effective protection a woman can gain from an abusive man is to arrange for a 24-hour guard or to relocate, he said. Such options are not available to everyone.

"There are times when we deal with a victim who tells us that she's afraid of what the man could do, but she is unable to articulate what she means," Wilmot said.

Rebecca Dempsey is an attorney who represents abused women for the Franklin County Women in Need program and shelter. She said the program's law office has obtained 259 protection from abuse orders between October 2001 and October 2002.

Most were obtained on behalf of women, Dempsey said, although a handful of men request them.

Victims petition the court for protective orders. The judge then issues a temporary order and the subject can request a hearing within 10 days. At that time the judge decides if the order should be permanent.

Dempsey said fewer than 10 percent of the subjects in protection from abuse cases that she handles ask for a hearing.

"There was only one case in the past year and it was dismissed," she said.

She said it is not uncommon for her office to handle two cases a week involving violations of the orders. The penalty for a violation - which is treated as criminal contempt of court - can be six months in jail and fines of up to $1,000.

Dempsey said women can protect themselves by considering when it's time to leave an abusive situation. Counselors with the Women In Need program assist in such safety planning, she said.

"They should think through when it's the best time to leave," Dempsey said.

They should have their papers in order and their clothes packed, she said. They should pick the least dangerous time, usually when the abuser is at work or away from the home.

The most dangerous time to leave is in the middle of a confrontation, Dempsey said.

Women who feel threatened should call the Women In Need abuse hotline at 1-717-264-4444, she said.

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