Oana Sandu, Scena9, 13 November 2023
Illustrations Simina Popescu
For a year, the Romanian state has been able to electronically monitor protection orders that victims of domestic violence receive to ensure that perpetrators do not approach them.
In a country where domestic abusers violate a third of these orders every year, the electronic bracelet solution could save lives.
But in the first 9 months of 2023, less than 5% of long-term protection orders were monitored electronically in the four counties and Bucharest where this protection mechanism is being tested. This means that survivors of domestic violence remain unprotected in one of the most dangerous periods of their lives.
From 2024, 19 more counties will implement electronic monitoring of domestic abusers, but it will take hard work to ensure that electronic bracelets designed to protect victims don’t remain just a paper solution.
It was late winter when Georgiana arrived crying, tired and silent in the kitchen of the restaurant in the centre of Bucharest where she worked. She was 32, with a 10-year-old child and 14 years in a relationship she knew she wanted to get out of. The restaurant owners saw her and asked her what was going on. She told them that her husband, from whom she wanted to separate, had hit her and threatened to kill her. The bosses accompanied her to a police station, where they suggested she go to the court and ask for a protection order. She couldn’t believe it when, just three days later, she was summoned to court and received her first protection order, forbidding her husband to come within 200 metres of her for two months.
Four months ago, in October 2022, in Bucharest and in Iași, Mureș and Vrancea counties, the state introduced electronic monitoring of protection orders issued to domestic abusers who are prohibited from approaching their victims. In such a case, the abuser is fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet that communicates, via GPS, with a phone that the victim receives. If the assailant approaches the victim’s location, the phone alerts the victim by text and audio signal.
However, although this safety measure was in place in Bucharest when Georgiana obtained the protection order, neither the police, nor the public defender, nor the judge told her that the order could come with this electronic monitoring.
“Nobody told me.”
It didn’t take her many days before her husband, with whom she was going through a divorce, began violating the order. Even though he was forbidden to communicate with her, he called her and threatened to kill her. There were days when she found herself with him in front of the block or on the street. Dozens of violations piled up and Georgiana reported them to the police, where she was asked for photos proving that the abuser was not respecting the distance imposed by the order and harassing her.
The period after reporting abuse is among the most dangerous in the lives of survivors of domestic violence. The risk of being physically hurt or harassed again is high. And this is borne out by statistics in Romania. Before the advent of electronic bracelets, between 30-40% of protection orders were broken by abusers every year. Breaking a protection order is a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment of 6 months to 5 years. In reality, criminal investigations can take years, cases are closed and few go to court.
Obtaining evidence of threats also rests on the shoulders of the victims, as it did for Georgiana. They are the ones who have to explain the fear they constantly feel and the danger they face to police officers who are often untrained when it comes to domestic violence. Sometimes, when women report that their partners have violated the protection order, the cops nonchalantly tell them, “How close did he get? It’s not like he’s here to bang your head against the sink.”
Over the past 10 years, some violations of protection orders have turned into murders. In 2018, a man with such an order killed his wife in her office in the daycare he ran, in the same building where dozens of children were housed. In 2020, a man who had been banned by the court from going near his wife killed the woman in the room where their 3- and 4-year-old children were staying. These cases not only show the state’s incompetence in protecting victims, but leave behind baggage of trauma for orphaned children and families. Such intimate partner murder happens on average around 40 times a year in Romania. According to the General Inspectorate of the Romanian Police, between 2014 and 2021 there were 337 murders between intimate partners: husband/wife, ex-spouses, former or current partners.
All of this has led to a constant demand for electronic monitoring of protection orders over the last ten years by organisations fighting for the rights and safety of women who have become victims of violence.
How does the electronic monitoring system work?
The perpetrator is fitted with a smartwatch-like ankle bracelet and given a device that looks like a phone. The victim is also given a similar device, on the screen of which you can see whether they are safe or whether the offender is approaching the limit imposed by the judge. When that happens, the display turns red and the device beeps. A police officer at the centre monitoring the system calls the victim to see where they are and what condition they are in, and if they are on the street, for example, a police team quickly arrives.
Electronic bracelets for domestic abusers are a solution in many countries around the world: USA, UK, France, Georgia, Portugal, Spain, Republic of Moldova. In Europe, Spain and Portugal are among the early adopters. Implemented in 2009 in Spain, the measure was part of a broad series of state interventions against domestic violence. Spanish judges decide that some of the orders should also be accompanied by electronic bracelets, depending on the seriousness of the situation and the likelihood of the abuser violating the order. Recently, European officials monitoring the implementation of the Istanbul Convention – the most important European treaty in the field of preventing and combating violence against women – warned Spain that a significant number of women have been killed because judges did not properly assess the danger they were in and did not provide electronic monitoring.
The final wake-up call
In the spring, when Georgiana’s first order protecting her from her abusive husband was due to expire, the managers of the restaurant where she worked put her in touch with the Anais organisation in Bucharest, which specialises in supporting victims of domestic violence. Georgiana continued to be harassed and had dozens of violations of the order. The organisation’s lawyer suggested she also apply to the court for electronic monitoring, explaining that this would keep her physically safe and, if the man broke the order again, she would have evidence at hand.
Georgiana was at the climax of an abusive relationship she had started when she was 19. The last night her husband hit her, after following her with a GPS tracker hidden in the lining of her bag, made her realise the danger she was in. Her husband then told her that if she called the police he would kill her.
It was as if he suddenly saw so many warning signs that he had overlooked. How shortly after they became lovers, while visiting a church, her partner suddenly made her swear she had never cheated on him. How the first slap and constant reproaches about her alleged infidelity came about. How he ordered her to use the live-sharing app, so she’d always know where he was, and how he forbade her to stray from the drive home. Thinking about this history, Georgiana told her lawyer without hesitation that she wanted her protection order monitored electronically.
It was one of 90 orders made by courts and monitored electronically in the first nine months of 2023. If they feel in danger, any victim who obtains a protection order can request this monitoring, either from the police, who issue the provisional order, for 5 days, or from the judges, who decide to extend the provisional one with a longer term one, which can vary between one month and one year.
By the end of September, in Bucharest and the counties of Mures, Iasi and Vrancea, judges had issued 2,057 protection orders, of which only 4.4% came with electronic monitoring. Around 12% of provisional protection orders – those given on the spot by police officers for a period of 5 days – were accompanied by electronic monitoring.
The low percentages are worrying. They show that professionals in the justice system – lawyers, prosecutors, judges – do not recognise the danger to women who report violence and demand protection. The situation may have several causes, says lawyer Giulia Crișan of the Anais Association. In the past year, she has supported women who have obtained protection orders and asked for electronic monitoring. She believes it’s a much-needed measure that makes a difference in domestic violence cases: it produces evidence to prove the violation, provides safety for victims and scares off aggressors.
Crișan believes that, first of all, the authorities have not initiated a broad information campaign. Secondly, police and justice professionals are not regularly trained on gender-based violence and how to deal with a victim to support her in reporting to the authorities who should be protecting her.
Electronic bracelet can be vital
The way some police officers inform and ask victims’ consent for monitoring is wrong, says Crișan, and puts the responsibility back on their shoulders. Women are asked if they want their partners to wear monitoring bracelets, but many refuse for fear they will retaliate. Sometimes they also refuse because of the guilt they feel towards their own abusers, a natural emotional consequence of going through years of abuse.
“Would you agree to wear an electronic monitoring device for protection?” is the right question victims should be asked. Informed consent to this question also means providing, as a police officer, social worker or lawyer, information about how the monitoring works, why it is useful or what the incidence of breach is.
The lawyer recalls the case of a domestic violence victim she counseled when electronic bracelets were just a dream. In a few years, the woman had collected 12 protection orders and more than 50 criminal complaints for violating the order. One day, when she was supposedly protected on paper, her husband hit her in the middle of the day after she got off the subway. She suffered three broken ribs and very serious injuries. After years of stress, the woman died of a heart attack.
For all the breaches, the man received only one year in prison. The situation would have been different for this woman if there had been a monitoring system with bracelets, says Giulia Crișan. “It also corrects the offenders’ behaviour, because they know they are in the police’s sights, they know they are being monitored, and every seven days they have to go to the station to check the devices.”
We asked each of the four police inspectorates in the areas where this system is being tested why the percentage of orders monitored electronically is so low. Their answer: victims’ refusal. From the Capital Police we received an incomprehensible explanation: “following questionnaires to victims of domestic violence who refused electronic monitoring, the main reason is the victim’s refusal”.
“The bracelet is part of the safety plan we make for each of the women we work with,” says Crina Muresanu, a social worker in a residential centre run by the Bucharest General Directorate of Assistance. The centre houses victims of domestic violence from the capital, along with their children. They can stay here for six months, sometimes even a year, or until they find a job, another safe place to live, another school, all away from their abusers.
This year, one of the women Crina worked with refused electronic monitoring for the protection orders she and her daughters had. She didn’t want to put her daughters under extra stress, the woman reasoned, because they were already experiencing anxiety and depression. Muresanu explained that this would give them more security when they go to school, for example. But she understood his decision.
But the difference was the approach in the courtroom, when the mother and her daughters went to ask for a protection order against their husband and father. In turn, the public defender asked the woman if she wanted the order to be monitored electronically. She again refused. Minutes later, the woman received the same question from the prosecutor. The fact that so many professionals in the safety circle – social work and justice – suggested the need for monitoring made the woman change her mind. The mother and daughters have lived in the centre for almost six months. Their phone rang a few times, a sign that the abuser was nearby, but police have not concluded whether it was a knowing violation or a coincidence. The violation of the order happened online, however, because the father contacted the girls through social media posts or messaging on the financial platform Revolut.
The ratio of protection orders issued between January and September 2023 in the four counties (blue), and their electronic monitoring (orange). Only 4.4% of long-term orders received electronic monitoring.Of the interim protection orders, issued by police officers for a period of 5 days, about 12% were monitored electronically. Source: IGPR
Bridges and alliances
“We also asked ourselves this question: ‘why are so few orders monitored?’,” Elena Micheu, executive director of the Eastern European Institute for Reproductive Health, an organisation based in Târgu-Mureș that has been supporting survivors of domestic violence for over 20 years, told me.
Micheu says the organisation she leads decided that in order to find solutions, it needed to ask another important question: “Do the police officers who go to such interventions have enough training to explain to victims that monitoring is done primarily for their safety, not to hold the perpetrator accountable?” The answer was no. So, says Elena Micheu, they decided to change that. In 2023, the Eastern European Institute for Reproductive Health organised mini-information sessions for police officers from Mures County on the implementation of the order and how they should communicate with victims when they are in danger, and they analysed real cases together. “It’s about creating bridges and alliances,” says Micheu, who met in these trainings young police officers eager to learn more about intimate partner violence, about the socio-emotional context that someone who faces abuse on a daily basis goes through.
Recurrent trainings, hosted by social workers and psychologists experienced in building safety plans for victims of domestic violence, are also valuable because the turnover of police officers in the system is high due to the possibility of early retirement.
Mures is a model county in the coordinated management of domestic violence cases. For over 20 years, the organisation where Micheu works has actively contributed to this model and has built a network of professionals working in NGOs and institutions with a role in supporting victims, and this kind of connection has allowed them to work together to solve cases.
But what happens in small communities, where there are no long-established organisations that encourage victims to apply for protection orders, to follow up on them, to train police officers or social workers?
Cătălina Mitel, a social worker at the Centre for Mediation and Community Safety in Iasi, says that in rural areas, many victims don’t even know that they can get a protection order, let alone an electronic bracelet. “I think there should be a correct and explicit information campaign, not in specialist terms, both about what the protection order means, that they can be protected with it, but also about the bracelet, what it represents and how it can help,” Mitel says.
An information campaign about electronic monitoring is useful in small towns and cities as well as in big ones like Bucharest. Even if in a big city we are theoretically closer to information, when you are a victim of domestic violence, a big city can isolate you even deeper, because it is easy for an abuser to alienate his partner from friends, family, work.
On the other hand, if people around you, from neighbours to the police, know more about how the protection order and the electronic bracelet work, your chances of getting out of an abusive relationship increase. At the same time, the risk of domestic violence becoming fatal decreases.
A nationwide information campaign is also called for by lawyer Giulia Crișan, as several counties will implement the electronic bracelet monitoring system from 2024. Information also means TV messages and training for police, so that there is a real focus on the key message of this measure: when they get a protection order, victims of domestic violence can be in danger, and monitoring the protection order helps them to be safe. “Every time there’s another crime,” says Crișan, “the authorities should talk about the bracelet and its importance.”
But there’s more, says the lawyer. In order for police officers to offer victims, without exception, the monitoring of protection orders, the system must first be simplified. The procedure needs to be digitised, so that people don’t have to fill in the forms by hand. “If you – as a system – don’t simplify, they won’t want to access the measure either, they will do their duty, perhaps, to ask the victim if they want the monitoring system, and if they don’t want it, they will say ‘good thing they don’t want it’ and not insist on telling them about the possible danger.”
Georgiana’s alarm bells went off the very first week after her husband was fitted with the electronic bracelet. “It also rang two or three times in one day. Where I was going, he was following me, in the car, when I got off the subway, off the tram. At the dispatcher he would tell them he was doing Uber and that’s why we were meeting.” One of the days, when she was at the post office and her alarm went off, the cops sent a squad to her. They told her they did this because the app showed them that her ex-husband had been parked in the area for a long time, so it was no accident that she was in the restricted perimeter.
The order was also violated by the threatening text messages Georgiana received, even though the offender was forbidden from even contacting her online or by phone. The man also used their daughter, whom he could contact, and in a video call showed the child a gun, telling her he was going to kill her mother. The little girl had the strength to take a print screen, and now the picture is one of the pieces of evidence in the prosecution file.
This summer, Georgiana took this photo to the police station to let the officers know that the assailant, who has a protection bracelet, said he was coming to their daughter’s end-of-school-year ceremony. Georgiana asked for their help because her daughter wanted her mother, not her father, to attend. For the child, it was a big moment: she had been taking first prize for three years and was proud of it, despite the tensions at home. “If you don’t come, I won’t go,” Georgiana remembers the child telling her. The policeman to whom she showed the picture and explained the situation told the woman that if anything happened on the day of the party, she could call 112. “He seemed recalcitrant and even told me ‘ma’am, if he’s a quiet man, there’s nothing he can do’. “Well, how can he be quiet, look, he’s threatening to kill me, I can’t see him there”, Georgiana replied.
He was at an emotional and technical impasse. If he had gone to the ceremony and come along, the alarm would have gone off. If he didn’t go, he’d let down his child, who had been under stress for so long anyway. She decided to go anyway, hoping that her role would come first, and her ex-husband would be the one removed. But when she reached her daughter’s classroom, the alarm went off because the man had already arrived in the courtyard. The cops came quickly and asked her to leave. In all the commotion, the award ceremony was over. The little girl was alone at an important moment and, says the mother, “doesn’t even have a picture of the award.”
Georgiana is now on her third protection order and hopes it will be her last and the threats and harassing messages will stop. Repeated breaches of previous orders have helped her get protection extended until February 2024. When she hears or reads a death threat message or an alarm sounds warning her that her husband is approaching, as happened to her again in October, she feels a terrible fear. It gets into her bones and paralyses her. She doesn’t want to think about what her life would look like if she didn’t have her monitoring phone in her bag. “I know the cops are close,” she says. “But I still live harassed.”
According to the Inspectorate General of the Romanian Police, from next year (2024), electronic monitoring will be extended to the counties of Bacau, Brasov, Caras-Severin, Calarasi, Cluj, Covasna, Galati, Giurgiu, Harghita, Ilfov, Mehedinti, Neamt, Prahova, Sibiu, Satu Mare, Sălaj, Teleorman, Vaslui and Valcea. From 2025, the measure will also be implemented in Alba, Arad, Argeș, Bihor, Bistrița-Năsăud, Botoșani, Brăila, Buzău, Constanța, Dâmbovița, Dolj, Gorj, Hunedoara, Ialomița, Maramureș, Olt, Suceava, Timiș and Tulcea counties.
Inequality in figures
Romania is still a patriarchal society. In the most recent report published by the European Institute for Gender Equality, our country ranks last in terms of gender equality. In fact, due to lack of data, Romania could not even be analysed in terms of gender-based violence in the research.
But the 2022 Gender Violence Barometer showed, for example, that one in four Romanians consider it acceptable for a man not to let his partner use his money as she wishes. And one in four also think that a woman cannot go out unaccompanied by her partner. Gender inequality creates abusive intimate relationships and violence.
In Romania, one in four women has been physically or sexually assaulted by a partner or ex-partner, according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights’ most important European study of 2016. According to statistics from the General Inspectorate of the Romanian Police, in the last 9 years, 445 women and girls have been killed by someone in their family. Last year, police officers intervened in 90,174 cases of domestic violence and issued 12,972 provisional protection orders. And these are just the reported figures; many other cases are still shrouded in silence.