Protection orders: Do they keep domestic violence victims safe?

DAYTON — July 21, 2019, was a hot Sunday afternoon when Donna Brown and her twin sister, Dawn Dunn, went to the Family Dollar on North James H. McGee Boulevard in Dayton to pick up water and pop for a family dinner.

It was the last thing Brown ever did.

When the sisters came out to their car, Dennis "Dale" Haggins was waiting.

He shot Donna Brown and then killed himself. Dunn could do nothing but run into the busy street.

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Brown had ended a 10-year relationship with Haggins because she was dating someone new. Two days before her death, she had gone downtown to the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Court to get a Civil Protection Order against Haggins.

"Because she said he kept bothering her," said Dunn. "He wouldn't stay away from her."

Court Administrator Jennifer Petrella-Ahrens said Brown got an immediate hearing before a magistrate and Haggins was served with the order later that day.

Petrella-Ahrens also revealed that Haggins had shown up on the courthouse floor as Brown was filling out paperwork. As he looked around, court staff asked if he needed assistance. She said he replied no, that he had the wrong floor, and he left.

Petrella-Ahrens said Haggins had tried to keep Brown from coming to court that morning by blocking her car at an intersection on West Third Street.

"The police came up on that scene," she said. "They were able to basically hold Mr. Haggins there and Donna continued down Third Street. She came to court to file."

Numbers News Center 7 obtained from Montgomery County show those seeking protection orders, like Brown, have increased dramatically.

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"[Last year] unfortunately was a horrible year for the numbers that we saw," said Petrella-Ahrens.

Last year the court had 2041 filing — almost 600 more than in 2016 — including a spike the days after Brown's murder.

"I think people said, 'You know what? If it can happen to her, it can happen to me too. I want to be protected,'" said Petrella-Ahrens.

The court administrator believes most people honor those orders, though she acknowledged the court does not keep track of numbers to back that up.

Jane Keiffer is the executive director of Dayton's Artemis Center, which serves 5,000 domestic violence victims every year.

She said a victim is often in the most danger when she leaves an abusive or controlling relationship.

"It's important to know that 75% of all intimate partner homicides happen within three months of separation," Keiffer said.

During its most recent reporting year, the Ohio Domestic Violence Network said the state had 81 domestic violence fatalities, including 14 murder suicides. It's unclear how many of those victims had a protection order.

To combat those statistics, Artemis advocates work with victims to create a safety plan. Keiffer said it does not always include a protection order.

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"Some abusers really uphold the law. So a piece of paper that says you can't come around means something," she said. "And there's some (abusers) that that doesn't mean anything to, so we really kind of look at the entire situation and what's best for this person."

Kamala Swain now wears a t-shirt that shows a picture of her with her three younger sisters, including Brown.

"We took it on Memorial Day," she said. "This is the last picture we took before she passed."

Swain's face reflects the pain of her loss.

"It was very unexpected," she continued. "I never dreamed that he would kill her."

A murder-suicide that was in public view in a Family Dollar parking lot and more people seeking protection orders.

No one knows for sure if it indicates more violence between intimate partners or greater awareness on the part of victims.

But Jennifer Petrella-Ahrens said one thing is certain.

"It's apparent that we have got to address this issue in our community and as an entire community. We have to come together."

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She is part of a group called the Community Coordinated Response to Domestic Violence, or CCR. It includes the court, Dayton police, Artemis, the YWCA and about 20 other agencies working to prevent domestic violence and help victims.

Petrella-Ahrens said the group is working to establish a Family Justice Center which would coordinate all services for victims under one roof.

Dayton Police Major Brian Johns, who is part of CCR, said the group has identified a location and hopes to open by June. He said it will be the only FJC in our area. He said the closest facility currently is in Cleveland.