She looked to be 20, gentle, and pretty. An infant with a flowery cloth headband was on her lap. And clinging to her leg was a little girl, smiling shyly, speaking of “daddy” and contorting her head to the far end of the wooden benches to a man who kept his head down.

We were among the handful of people in the hallway of the Knox County District Court in Rockland last week waiting for the protection from abuse hearings to begin.

Maine courts have dramatically scaled back due to the coronavirus, and requests and hearings for protection from abuse (PFA) and protection from harassment (PFH) orders are two of only eight activities still taking place. No family matters “except for extreme emergencies and case by case,” the clerk, Eileen Bridges, told me.

The young mother was there to drop her PFA, or officially, a “motion to vacate.”

Only a judge can change, end, or extend a protection order, even if the parties have changed their minds about the terms, or reached an agreement. Until a judge has done so, the original order remains in effect. So today it was up to Judge Paul Mathews.

In the courtroom, the young woman stood up, the little girl continued to try to catch her father’s eye, and the father continued to stare straight ahead.

“Yes,” the young woman confirmed to the judge when he asked if she wanted to dismiss her protection from abuse order. The judge, in a casual and friendly way, pointed out to the man that he still had bail conditions that prohibited contact, and that he might want to write to the courts regarding the status of those.

And then: Motion granted.

That was it. Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances I was unaware of, but it appeared to me that the civil order protecting a woman with two small children from a man who had been violent toward her and judged to be dangerous to her was being dispatched as quickly and casually as a request to change a pizza order from pepperoni to cheese.

Victims of intimate partner abuse maintain their silence to outsiders, and protect their abuser at any cost to themselves. Anyone who has ever been in an abusive relationship and every advocate for domestic abuse victims knows we do this, and knows that coercive control by the abuser and fear of the abuser are just two of the myriad of well-founded reasons why we do this. I would hope that every judge presiding over Protection From Abuse hearings would be on the lookout for this dynamic when making his rulings.

In normal, pre-coronavirus times, a staff member and volunteer from New Hope for Women might have been with this young woman to lend emotional support and legal advice, and also safety plan for the motion's resolution. But because New Hope, like all social service agencies, has been forced to temporarily suspend physical, face-to-face contact with its clients, she was alone, and the judge surely saw this. Yet he expressed zero interest in why she was dropping the protection order, and did nothing to ascertain if this action was in her best interest.

Four years ago, in that same courthouse, Judge Susan Spiraco granted my own request to drop a PFA in the same cavalier fashion. This action compromised my physical safety and sparked a host of ramifications that will haunt me until the day I die.

It was two days after my husband of 29 years was arrested for domestic violence.

I was in a state of wild confusion (my secret outed in the most public way possible), guilt (my 911 call having caused the free-fall of his career), physical pain (head throbbing from where it had been crushed with bare hands, body aching from bruises) and trauma from four hours of terror and then narrowly escaping death by the hands of someone who supposedly loved me.

Tricia Welte, a good friend who was now his lawyer, was in my kitchen, reiterating why I needed to drop the protection from abuse order: It was the only thing that could salvage his career; I still had protection from his bail conditions; the order was being dismissed “without prejudice” so I could get it back anytime.

I signed.

I remember being surprised that my signature was all it took to get the PFA dropped, and that the judge did nothing to find out out that it was the perpetrator’s lawyer who handed me the pen for that signature.

Of course, like so much in an abusive relationship, dropping the PFA served him very well and was a disaster for me.

It allowed him to issue a statement to the media that traveled the globe the next morning that he was innocent and I was a liar. It paved the way for the perpetrator to take over our marital home while the victim lived out of suitcases, wandering from rental house to rental house, put through hell every time she needed to get the most basic personal and work items out of her home of 25 years.

But most critically, dropping the PFA put my life in danger.

A PFA is a civil order and a layer of protection that is distinct from criminal bail conditions. Bail conditions lapse. PFAs can be renewed. Some lawyers do not understand this.

When I tried to get the PFA back because I was in heightened danger, my lawyer would not get on board, telling me, “Judges don’t like when you play the system.” When my now ex-husband’s bail conditions were set to expire and I was terrified at the prospect of there being nothing to prevent him from contacting me, my new lawyer told me the chances of getting the PFA back were slim because the 29-year prior history of abuse, and the assault for which he was arrested, and my fear for safety based on these two factors, did not count. There needed to be “fresh” criminal conduct.

My angel advocate from Next Step domestic abuse agency in Ellsworth, Missy Fairfield, basically said, “You need this and we are going to get it for you” and it is due to her efforts that I now finally have a PFA, and for 10 years.

Last Friday, the clerk at the Rockland courthouse, Eileen Bridges, commented on how quiet it has been on the domestic violence front: “Maybe people are hunkering down and being nice to each other?”

I don’t think so.

Fear of retribution from the abuser is a main, and valid, reason why victims of intimate partner abuse do not report the abuse or reach out for help, and why they recant to police, and to the district attorney. But imagine how much worse it is now when the abuser is home 24/7; because of the state-imposed social isolation, she has nowhere to run; because everyone’s jobs are gone or curtailed or at risk she has no money to run with; because everyone is hiding inside and domestic abuse agencies are no longer seeing clients face to face, she has no one to talk to.

The children, too, have lost their safe place of a classroom or daycare or a friend’s house, and their safe person of a teacher, neighbor, friend.

As long as the PFA hearings continue — and there is no guarantee of this as public spaces steadily lock down — the courtroom remains the last public place where an official can ascertain if a domestic abuse victim is safe, and where an official can issue an order to help make her safe and keep her safe.

Every request to grant or drop a protection from abuse order could be the last opportunity to save a woman’s life, or children’s lives, because sometimes these guys kill the kids too.

The young woman and adorable children I saw on Friday might be lost to the system now, especially if the man follows through with the judge’s suggestion to — if I understood it right — get his bail conditions lifted. And then God only knows what they will endure and for how long, invisible and silent to the outside world.

Year after year in Maine, almost half of all homicides are as a result of domestic abuse. We are now in a perfect storm for this statistic to finally budge — but upward. If you think someone you know is, or might be, in an abusive relationship, stay in touch by phone. Checking in now and then to let them know you are there for them could be extending a lifeline. Also, you can call the confidential 24/7 New Hope for Woman helpline (800-522-3304) for advice on how to help victims and also safety-planning tips pass on.

More than ever, we need to watch out for domestic abuse victims to whom state-imposed social isolation is more than an inconvenience. And all Maine judges presiding over Protection From Abuse order hearings, who are in a unique position to prevent an uptick in domestic violence trauma and deaths in our state, that means you, too.