Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden recalled a recent situation in which a judge signed off on a protection order that granted custody to a father who McFadden believed was the abuser in the relationship.

Three hours later, McFadden said, the mother went to the courthouse with the intention of obtaining a protection order against her spouse on behalf of herself and her children. The court issued her a protection order, said McFadden, but did not grant one for the children.

"That's because they'd already given the dad custody," said McFadden. "It comes down to whoever gets there first."

The problems law enforcement encounter with protection orders was the main topic of the Monday, Jan. 27, meeting of the Waldo County Domestic Violence Task Force, a group including several members of the local law enforcement community, New Hope for Women, a representative from Waldo County Probation and Parole, as well as the Waldo County District Attorney's Office. The focus of the task force, which formed late last year, was to find ways to help victims say safe. Whether they choose to leave their abuser or not, and provides safety planning assistance, a place to air concerns about their situations, and a choice in terms of who participates in the risk assessment meetings that are tailored to the needs of each victim.

McFadden said in the scenario he referenced, the judge awarded custody to the father without seeking out any background information such as criminal history — particularly whether any of the crimes involved domestic violence — or whether the issue between the parents had ever been referred to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

"They just don't ask questions," said McFadden. "The guy could have been on the sex offender registry for all they know."

McFadden said since the hands of law enforcement were tied until the issue could be rectified within the court system, police had to go to the mother's home and "ripped the kids away" so they could go to their father instead.

"I didn't sleep well for the next few days," said McFadden.

McFadden said that lack of communication between judges and law enforcement is a big problem, and he wants to find ways to improve it.

Searsport Police Chief Dick LaHaye said he encountered that same scenario, and continued to deal with the issue for much of the day Monday. In that case, LaHaye said, he was concerned for the safety of the child involved.

McFadden said in cases of issuing protection orders, judges have not been willing to discuss any issues relating to the people involved with law enforcement, and it has not been for lack of trying on the part of the officers.

"My officers have called the judge at home," said McFadden. "They did not get a very good response from the judge."

McFadden said if this problem continues in the court system, it is "going to kill someone."

Retired probation officer Eric Harvey suggested the task force invite a judge, either from the district court circuit, probate court, or both, to come to a future committee meeting.

Maine State Police Troop D Lt. Aaron Hayden suggested McFadden bring the issue before the Maine Commission on Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse, as a judge sits on the commission and could offer insight.

"Probably the best ears out there are within that commission," said Hayden.

In terms of the way protection orders are served, Waldo County Chief Deputy Jeff Trafton said there have been lots of improvements on that end in the last few years.

While officers used to be limited on how they could serve orders because the law dictated police must serve recipients with the original order that included the state seal, not a printed copy. Now due to in-cruiser technology like computers and printers, and a change in the law, an officer can see if the subject of a traffic stop is also scheduled to be served with a protection order. If that is the case, the officer can serve the motorist with the protection order at the site of the stop.

Trafton said another improvement is that protection orders that need to be served are now assigned to individual officers, where before they were placed in a box to be served by the first officer who happened to see it needed to be delivered.

Trafton said the new system has made the service process much quicker than what was previously the case.

"I have got to tell you, those folders [containing protection orders] are almost always empty," said Trafton.

The task force also discussed the progress of the first high-risk response team meetings in which two victims sought assistance. In both cases, the women involved met with the team initially and set up safety plans. A short time later, Trafton said, abusers in both cases violated the protection orders — one man mailed his former spouse a Christmas card, addressed to himself, and later claimed it was for the family dog. The other man created a fake Facebook account and communicated with the woman under the guise of being an old high school friend.

Trafton said both victims immediately reached out to members of the team, and all acted quickly to remove the victims from any danger. Maine State Police Trooper Elisha Fowlie said he went to one of the victim's homes in response, took photos for future reference and checked the property for game cameras that the woman suspected her abuser had set up nearby.

"She was so appreciative that we would take the time to do this for her," said Fowlie.

In other news, the task force considered ways of securing grant funding to bring a domestic violence detective back into the fold of local law enforcement. The county benefited from a similar position about 10 years ago, when grant money helped cover the cost of such a position. It worked well for the term of the grant, but Trafton said once the county started picking up the tab for the position, the role morphed into more of a general assignment detective.

"This time, it's just going to be domestic violence, that is going to be their whole focus," said Trafton.