Deputy Chris Wright walks up to the door of the red brick duplex. A white Ford Explorer is sitting in the driveway, just as a woman seeking a protection from abuse order said it would be.
Wright, dressed in his blue Sedgwick County sheriff’s uniform, rings two different doorbells and knocks hard on a storm door. He’s looking for a woman believed to live there that another woman said had been abusive and threatening to her.
An upstairs window is half open, making Wright think someone could be inside.
But no one answers.
Wright’s day serving papers on behalf of Sedgwick County residents who seek protection from abuse or stalking starts off as it often does: with a dud.
Through April, the sheriff’s office’s success rate serving papers for protection from abuse orders this year was 54 percent. The success rate for protection from stalking orders was 56 percent.
That means some people seeking protection don’t get it.
A committee made up of sheriff’s and judicial officials and advocates for victims of domestic violence have been meeting to come up with ways to improve the numbers, sheriff’s Capt. Brenda Dietzman said.
Dietzman was promoted to captain and transferred to the judicial division in late 2011. The judicial division includes the Sheriff’s Office’s civil process servers.
“I put an extra emphasis on this the last of last year,” she said. “These people are coming to us for the help that we can give them. …
“It’s tough. These people are desperate. They’re usually people who don’t have a lot of money. They don’t have a lot of options, and we’re one of those options.”
Few serve papers
Three commissioned deputies serve papers for protection from abuse and stalking orders.
There used to be four deputies who served such papers. Sedgwick County has the highest rate of applications for protection orders in Kansas, records from the Kansas Bureau of Investigations show.
Filing for an order is free, and so is service from the Sheriff’s Office, which is tasked by law to serve such papers. When someone files for protection, a judge considers the request and grants temporary protection until a court hearing. At the court hearing, the judge can grant protection for a year. But to do so, the defendant must attend the hearing or there must be proof that the defendant was served with papers telling him or her to appear in court.
The Sheriff’s Office receives the papers from the courts, and the deputies such as Wright have until the court date to get papers served against the defendants.
A veteran of the Sheriff’s Department for almost 20 years, Wright has been serving papers for four years.
“I’ve had days where I can’t get my hands around the stack of papers,” he said.
During a ride-along Thursday, he said “yesterday I got paperwork for a court appearance today.”
He wasn’t able to get the paper served.
“We’re supposed to have 21 days from the time we receive the papers to the court date,” he said. “At best we get two weeks.”
Dietzman said she was not sure why there was a short turnaround time in some cases.
“I am not sure how that works because the date is filled out when we get it. That is the first time that we are involved in the process,” she said.
Sedgwick County District Court Chief Judge James Fleetwood said the forms are filed with the court, and “it is the clerk’s process to make service copies immediately available to the sheriff.”
He said he didn’t know why there would be a delay.
When Wright and the other deputies can’t serve papers, the person requesting the order can refile what’s called an “alias,” and the process starts over.
The top two reasons papers don’t get served are that defendants don’t answer the door or the plaintiffs aren’t able to supply accurate addresses, Wright said. The deputies can’t simply leave the papers at a home. The defendants have to be served in person.
“The defendant can be inside the house watching TV and the officer can see them but they can’t just leave the paper on the door. We can’t count that as a service,” Dietzman said.
Thursday morning, Wright went to eight homes. He was able to serve papers on two people. Two residences were vacant. At one home, the wife of the defendant answered the door, but she said her husband was out working as a roofer and she wasn’t sure where. He planned to return to several of the homes in the afternoon to see if the defendants would be there then. If he tries a defendant in the morning, he typically will go back at a different time for a second or third attempt to mix things up.
Wright said success is out of his hands.
“We would love to be able to serve these 100 percent,” he said.
People seeking orders describe in writing why they think they need protection from abuse or stalking. They fill out a form listing the name of the person to be served along with as much information as they have about where that person lives or works.
“Unfortunately, we get papers where there are no addresses for the defendant,” Dietzman said. “I saw one the other day where it just said ‘Bel Aire.’ ”
State law prohibits court workers from helping people fill out the requests for help. But some of Wichita’s domestic violence shelters have advocates at the courthouse who can help.
“We’re working out ways on how to improve the process,” Dietzman said. “We’re working with the clerk’s office and the PFA (protection from abuse) office, revamping some of the forms to make them easier for the person to fill out.
“It would be helpful, especially when there is a language barrier, for them to receive more help and guidance. It would be nice to have more time to invest in each case, but that is the situation with most of what we do.”
Fleetwood said in an e-mail that although court clerks are not able to provide legal advice to people, “I believe court family services does provide assistance and direction in the mechanics and factual requirements of a PFS/PFA order.”
Joyce Mahoney, program director at Catholic Charities Harbor House, said it’s disappointing that papers can’t always be served.
“That’s been a continuing problem — that the women will go file the PFA and then they’re not able to get the order because he’s not been served,” Mahoney said. “It is frustrating for survivors of domestic violence that they can’t obtain the protection from the restraining order simply because they can’t get service.”
People can pay a private company to serve papers, but that isn’t done a lot for protection from abuse and stalking orders because of the cost, officials say.
Mahoney said Harbor House has paid for private process service twice in the past six months.
Private process servers often have more time to sit on a house, favorite hangout or workplace or have the flexibility to move quickly if the plaintiff calls and says she knows where the defendant is.
“Oftentimes the process servers with the county don’t have that option to just drop everything because you can serve him in the next five minutes at this place. If you are privately hiring someone, they have that option,” she said.
People also can call 911 if they see the defendant and ask for a law enforcement officer to come to the location. Plaintiffs are given a copy of the order when they file and can give that copy they have to the officer, who serves the paper. The sheriff’s deputies work 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and are on the streets typically from about 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Wright said.
Other law enforcement officers can serve papers in the evenings, he said, if the defendant calls 911 and uses her or his copy.
Private service costly
Julie Burkhart, founder of Trust Women, which recently opened South Wind Women’s Center, filed a protection from stalking order earlier this year against a Wichita pastor she said had come to her home and workplace and used threatening language to intimidate her. South Wind Women’s Center offers abortions as part of its health care services for women.
Burkhart said security guards at the clinic and some law enforcement officers who had been at the clinic for a meeting told her she might want to hire a private process server.
“They told me that they’re so backlogged that if you want to get it served in a timely fashion, you might want to hire someone,” Burkhart said.
She said it cost her $90 to do so.
Dietzman said “if you pay somebody $90, they can sit at a place or follow them around. We’re trying to the best with the number of people we have.”
Mahoney said Harbor House’s clients can’t afford to pay for a private process server.
Kathy Williams, executive director of the Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center, said her agency is part of the Wichita/Sedgwick County Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition and is represented on the committee working to improve service rates.
“We did not have a sheriff’s representative consistently until Brenda came on,” she said.
Stakeholders are doing a better job communicating with each other, she said.
Fleetwood said he believes the Sheriff’s Office does the best job it can.
“I do know that they are actively trying to get those served in a timely basis because of the sensitive nature of what they’re trying to do,” he said.
In an e-mail, he added, “I do believe the sheriff deals with the same budget and staffing issues we are all dealing with, which makes it difficult to respond to every public need and demand.”