Using technology to help protect victims of violence

by Jenny Carless

Sometimes getting an Order of Protection (OP) served as quickly as possible can be a matter of life or death. Victims of abuse need immediate protection, and paper-based processes can cause unnecessary — even dangerous — delays.

With this in mind the Circuit Court of Kane County, Illinois, is replacing its paper-based OP process with an electronic workflow based on Adobe LiveCycle® products.

"A group of us were frustrated with the OP process, which involved 17 pages of forms and took far too much time from when the victim started the process to when the abuser was served with papers," explains Deborah Seyller, clerk of the Circuit Court. "The process was intimidating for the victims, and we knew that the administration could be improved, too."

Kane County, in northeast Illinois, is one of the fastest growing counties in the United States. On average, 33 OPs are processed each week. An Order of Protection is a legal document by which a judge orders an abuser to stop violent behavior and to stay away from the victims and their home.

Kane County screenshot

Challenges of a paper-based process

The manual process Kane County used until recently posed numerous challenges:

"Typically, a petitioner [victim] gets help filling out the forms from a judicial advocate," explains Monica Lawrence, project manager. "With the previous system, the many duplicate questions meant that victims had to answer emotionally difficult questions repeatedly."

"Paper forms created challenges with accuracy and legibility," she continues. "Part of the paperwork includes a proposed order and findings, and when the judge modified those, we'd have cross-outs all over and handwriting in the margins."

After a judge signed the order, the paperwork went back to the Circuit Clerk's office, which then physically delivered it to the sheriff's office to perform official service on the abuser. "Often, the sheriff was attempting service at 7 PM or later for a petition that had begun that morning," Lawrence explains.

Reducing time, ensuring accuracy

With the new electronic workflow based on Adobe LiveCycle products, both victims and the county are experiencing important benefits.

For victims, the time saved is critical. The new electronic workflow cuts the time to complete all OP forms by more than an hour. Further, electronic routing among the judges, clerk, and sheriff saves many more valuable hours.

"In all honesty, it could be life or death," says Seyller. "If it takes eight hours to get the paperwork to the sheriff, that's eight more hours the victim is being subjected to the abuser."

The electronic process also relieves stress and intimidation. Thanks to a special wizard, victims can begin filling out the forms anywhere with an Internet connection, lessening time at court. The wizard asks a series of plain-language questions and harvests information that is placed in the Adobe forms.

The time saved is important to the county as well. Court clerks now spend less time pushing paper, and the legibility and accuracy of the forms have also improved. "Judges can make changes immediately to the electronic forms, rather than writing in the margins and crossing out text manually," says Lawrence.

Finally, the electronic workflow provides integration to the clerk's office systems and databases, and it saves paper.

The Adobe solution

Kane County was introduced to Adobe through JetForm products. JetForm, later called Accelio, was acquired by Adobe in 2002.

"We were using Form Flow, so that led us to some of JetForm's other products and eventually to Adobe LiveCycle," explains Matthew Meyer, programmer/designer and technical lead on the project. "We evaluated other workflow engines, but development time using the Adobe product with its PDF integration is much shorter."

"No one has a front end that ties into the workflow like Adobe LiveCycle Form Manager does. We would have had to write something custom, and we didn't have the time or inclination," adds Josh Orr, another programmer/designer on the project. "From a back-end standpoint, the workflow server is quite flexible, so it can adapt to our existing processes."

Kane County's OP electronic workflow relies on the following Adobe products:

Any of the five agencies involved can start the OP process through the unified Adobe LiveCycle–based workflow.

Information is entered directly into the electronic forms by judicial advocates who work with the victims or through the wizard by the victims themselves. The easy-to-follow wizard populates the forms with the necessary information. (Data is entered just once and automatically repeated, where necessary, across all forms.)

After the petitioner signs the form electronically, court clerk file stamps and certifications are applied. The document is then rendered as a secure PDF. As part of the process, the advocate accesses a drop-down menu to send drafts of suggested orders (which also have been prepopulated with case data) to the judge and any other necessary parties — with just a click of the mouse.

When the petitioner enters the courtroom, the judge can simply call up the case forms from his or her desktop. If changes need to be made, the judge can make them on the spot or use the drop-down menu to send it back to the appropriate advocate.

After the judge signs the approved documents electronically, the forms are routed immediately to the sheriff's office for service, to the clerk's office to file (where the archival system is updated with the latest case documents), and to the appropriate advocate.

"As a result, the sheriff has the OP before the petitioner even leaves the courtroom," says Seyller.

"One of our main goals was to ease the burden as much as possible for victims of domestic violence," she adds. "With Adobe LiveCycle workflow, we feel confident that we're doing that."

Jenny Carless is a senior writer for ROI Communications and frequently writes for Adobe publications.