Reilly moves to keep info off limits
Restraining order survey in Gardner spurs action

By Ian Donnis, Telegram & Gazette staff

March 4, 1999

GARDNER--Responding to research by activist fathers at Gardner District Court, state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly filed legislation yesterday to protect the confidentiality of restraining order recipients.

The move came after Reilly expressed concern that fatherhood activists who have reviewed the 416 restraining orders issued at the Gardner court in 1997 plan to "interrogate" the victims in the cases.

Advocates for battered women bristled at the idea of activists making unsolicited telephone calls to alleged victims of domestic violence. They were also troubled that the address, telephone number and other identifying data of restraining order recipients are usually public record at courts across the state.

But Steven M. Basile of Gardner, director of the North Central Massachusetts chapter of the Fatherhood Coalition, said a telephone survey that began about two weeks ago is not remotely like an interrogation.

Basile, who is leading a review of the restraining orders from 1997 in what he called an effort to document the misuse of such orders, said Reilly's legislation is misguided.

"Public information should be available so we can analyze what effect our laws are having on the general public," Basile said last night. "If any study can identify weaknesses in the current law, it should be encouraged, not discouraged."

Advocates for battered women, though, said the public availability of identifying information about victims of domestic violence is a clear threat to their safety.

"The concern is that victims of domestic violence who are seeking restraining orders are generally in fear and seeking the court's protection," said Judith E. Beals, chief of Reilly's victim compensation and assistance division. "We were surprised to learn how easily anyone could obtain that information."

Beals said she was not aware of any cases in which victims of domestic violence have been harmed or harassed because of information publicly available at a court. But she added, "I don't think we need specific instances of this happening before we have a problem."

Information from restraining orders is available to the public unless the court has ordered it impounded, or unless one of the parties is a minor.

Reilly's proposal would modify the existing law by requiring that addresses, telephone numbers and other identifying information about people who obtain restraining orders be kept confidential.

Basile said Reilly's proposal is unnecessary because victims can check a box on restraining order applications to maintain their confidentiality. But Marianne Winters, executive director of Jane Doe Inc., a Boston-based advocacy group for battered women, said such practices are not consistent throughout the state.

Reilly got involved in the situation after Jane Doe Inc. received an e-mail message from Basile last month in which he sought volunteers to help with a telephone survey. The message indicated the survey would be related to a study of restraining orders issued at Gardner District Court in 1997.

According to a copy of the e-mail provided by Jane Doe, Basile wrote that once information from the orders is "in the database, we will be able to do an interrogation and do an analysis."

State Sen. Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, who is sponsoring Reilly's bill in the Senate, said she could not believe it when she learned about both the planned survey and the public availability of information in restraining orders.

Referring to Basile's group, which is affiliated with the Boston-based Fatherhood Coalition, Murray said, "There is no purpose, besides intimidation, for this organization or any uninvolved individual or group to access this information."

But Basile said his group has no intention of intimidating victims of domestic violence. "I've used the term (interrogation) when I talk about interrogating our database, but I don't feel our survey is an interrogation," he said. "An interrogation is where you put someone in a room and don't let them escape."

Since the telephone survey began about two weeks ago, about 20 people have been contacted and a few women have been willing to answer questions, Basile said. He said the survey uses male volunteers to talk with men and female volunteers to talk with women.

Although the records are public, the review of 1997 restraining orders at Gardner District Court did not start until December 1997 -- eight months after Basile first sought access to the documents. He was able to obtain access only after writing to Samuel E. Zoll, chief justice of the state's district courts, and waiting four months for a response.

Advocates for battered women maintain that abuse of restraining orders is extremely rare. Fatherhood activists and some defense lawyers contend that the misuse is more pervasive than widely believed.

Winters, however, said she considers Basile's organization to be incapable of doing objective research. "I think they're trying to prove a case, rather than trying to do nice research," she said.

(c) 1999 Worcester Telegram & Gazette

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