Domestic Violence Courts:
Organization and Procedure Varies
By Madelynn Herman
Domestic violence courts are courts that have been identified as having some type of specialized process for handling cases involving domestic violence, including, for example, centralized intake processes, separate calendars for civil protection order petitions and criminal domestic violence cases, and domestic violence units. Domestic violence courts emphasize victim protection first and oftentimes, judges have specialized training and knowledge in the dynamics of domestic violence.
Domestic violence courts vary organizationally and procedurally and offer varied levels of services. Many include intake units that orient victims to court procedures and provide legal assistance and referrals. Another common feature of domestic violence courts is the designation of one or more specialized judges to hear exclusively domestic violence cases. Dedicated calendars and specialized judges facilitate the development of judicial expertise in domestic violence issues, while having a central location for hearing domestic violence cases promotes procedural uniformity.
What types of cases do domestic violence courts handle?
Domestic violence courts vary in their scope of jurisdiction, structure, and processes. Many have jurisdiction over the issuance of civil protection orders (CPOs), but only some of these also have jurisdiction over criminal domestic violence cases. Other domestic violence courts have jurisdiction for criminal cases but not for protection orders. Some court programs dedicate a separate unit within a court to handle domestic violence disputes. Other variations involve the type of calendar used and judicial assignments to them, the use of quasi-judicial officers, the length of rotation of judges through the court, intake
procedures, extent of victim services, and the involvement of non-court personnel.
What is an integrated model of a domestic violence court?
An integrated model of a domestic violence court combines both civil protection orders and criminal calendars with the court's jurisdiction as well as employing various methods of coordination with intake and other processes. The integrated model is a holistic approach to domestic violence cases where the court seeks to handle all related cases pertaining to a single family where the underlying issue is domestic violence. Dade County, Florida is a well-known example of an integrated model of a domestic violence court. New York State is in the process of integrating their domestic violence courts on a statewide basis. By
2006, New York plans to integrate courts where criminal, family, and matrimonial matters are all heard in the same court by the same judge.
Steps in Establishing a Domestic Violence Court
Excerpted from Creating a Domestic Violence Court: Guidelines and Best Practices, Emily Sack, Family Violence Prevention Fund, 2002.
- Identify key system partners and develop a court planning working group.
- Conduct a system-wide audit to determine needs.
- Determine goals and priorities of the domestic violence system response.
- Determine the domestic violence caseload.
- Review state and federal domestic violence laws, pending legislation and any laws affecting court jurisdiction.
- Determine whether a dedicated domestic violence court or specialized domestic violence docket would be feasible, determine model, and develop working definition of domestic violence to be employed by the court.
- Learn from other jurisdictions.
- Bring in senior administrators from court and partner agencies.
- Determine staffing needs of court and agency partners.
- Determine service needs and ensure cultural diversity appropriate for court population in service providers and staff.
- Assess available resources and explore options for additional funding where necessary.
- Review security at the courthouse and all related locales frequented by victims.
- Develop written protocols for court and partner coordination.
- Identify and access information systems.
- Institute a data collection/evaluation plan.
- Conduct domestic violence trainings for all partners.
- Develop a phase-in plan for caseload and/or services.
- Expect challenges and prepare for change.
Particular needs that should be addressed in the establishment of the creation of a specialized domestic violence court or docket include the following.
- The need for additional victim services, particularly in the areas of immigration legal services and multi-lingual advocacy programs.
- The importance for the court in maintaining impartiality and the appearance of impartiality in decision-making, and including the defense bar in project planning and ongoing collaboration.
- The need for additional services for specific components of the defendant population, particularly those with substance abuse and/or mental illness issues.
- The need for integrated technology systems to access related pending case and domestic violence histories.
Conference of State Court Administrators Drafts White Paper on Domestic Violence
By S. Kay Farley
The role of courts in domestic violence cases is the topic of the 2004 White Paper being developed by the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA).
The draft White Paper will be presented to the COSCA membership for comment and discussion at their annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah on Sunday, July 25th. Members of the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) will also be invited to participate in this discussion session. The COSCA Policy and Liaison Committee, which has responsibility for developing the White Papers, will consider the input received and revise the White Paper as needed and present the final White Paper to the COSCA membership for adoption.
COSCA White Papers not only identify and frame issues relative to the White Paper topic, but generally include an action agenda for future Conference activity. More information about the 2004 White Paper will be available after the Salt Lake City meeting.
New York's Integrated Domestic Violence Courts
By Martha Wade Steketee
A recent article in the National Law Journal describes the effort in New York State to implement statewide by 2006 integrated domestic violence courts that will address criminal, family, and domestic relations issues in a single family before a single judge.
Attempts to integrate decision making across courts is not new. The idea of "one family one judge" or "one child one judge" in child welfare cases is regarded as "best practice" in many areas. This idea usually focuses on bringing the civil matters related to abuse and neglect, child placement, and custody, visitation, and support before a single judge where possible. And some selected jurisdictions such as the District of Columbia have instituted dedicated domestic violence courts that have similarly integrated the civil and criminal cases that touch the lives of the adults battered by intimate partners or family members who come to the court. New York's
commitment to taking this innovation statewide in these cases is what makes this news.
According to the NLJ article, "The idea behind New York's commitment to integrated courts is to provide a holistic approach so that a victim is not forced to navigate three court systems. Before these courts came along, a complainant in a criminal court might petition for an order of protection from a family court, a divorce from a matrimonial court, and a resolution of child custody issues in one of these civil courts-each with a different judge who would not be privy to the other cases."
Different constituencies and interests have different concerns about this kind of integrated justice. Public defenders may be concerned that victim allegations drive the process. Defense lawyers have argued that the language of "victim" in domestic violence courts ought to be changed to "complainant" to reduce the possible decision-making bias. Proponents of the integrated courts argue that a specialized docket creates a specialized expertise in the judges and others involved, which increases the quality of the decisions. The strongest proponents, including Chief Judge Judith Kaye cited by the article as "undisputedly the prime mover for problem-solving
courts in New York," acknowledge that these courts require a new role for judges beyond that of dispassionate adjudicator to include case manager, administrator, community advocate, and cheerleader.
New York's experience will be important to document and to understand ...
1 Monday, May 10, 2004, p. 1, col. 2, "A big step for specialty courts: Domestic violence courts become integrated in N.Y: by Leonard Post.
2 Steketee, M.W., Levey, L.S., and Keilitz, S.L. (June 2000). Implementing an Integrated Domestic Violence Court: Systemic Change in the District of Columbia. Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts. Final report to the State Justice Institute (SJI-98-N-016). http://www.ncsconline.org/WC/Publications/
The Judicial Oversight Demonstration Initiative: Lessons for the Court
By Brenda K. Uekert
The Judicial Oversight Demonstration (JOD) initiative is jointly funded and managed by the Office on Violence Against Women and the National Institute of Justice. The JOD initiative, begun in 1999 in the communities of Dorchester, Massachusetts, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Washtenaw County, Michigan, are collaborative projects involving the court, prosecutor's office, victim service providers, batterer intervention programs, law enforcement, probation, and other community organizations (see http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/vawprog/demo_jud.html for more information).
The JOD initiative programs are based on three core strategies:
- Uniform and consistent initial responses to domestic violence offenses;
- Coordinated victim advocacy and services; and
- Strong offender accountability and oversight.
The Urban Institute is currently evaluating the effectiveness of the JOD initiative (see www.urban.org for reports). While final reports of the comprehensive evaluation are not yet available, the Urban Institute evaluation offers several lessons that are applicable to domestic violence courts nationwide.
Domestic violence courts often require a balancing act from judges. On the one hand, judges are committed to the independence of the judiciary and their role as interpreter of the law. On the other hand, they are committed to systemic changes in the courts designed to improve the administration of justice. To maintain a sense of fairness, the JOD sites have involved defense bar representatives as full network partners.
Domestic violence courts require dedicated and specialized staff. The JOD judges have all received specialized training on domestic violence (most received training sponsored by the National Judicial College, http://www.judges.org/). In addition to specialized judges, dedicated prosecutors and probation officers play integral roles in the JOD sites.
Domestic violence courts will have to find innovative ways to manage the court workload, particularly in the face of shrinking state budgets. Some of the reorganization efforts to streamline court processes at the Milwaukee JOD site include the co-location of courtrooms, which helps the schedules of attorneys and victim assistants; the hiring of a commissioner to handle preliminary matters; and scheduling review hearings for a time when deputy sheriffs could take noncomplying probationers into custody.
Preliminary findings from the Urban Institute suggest that the JOD initiative has helped create a greater commitment from judges on the issue of domestic violence, to the point that the culture of the court system has changed. Collective planning and ongoing meetings have improved coordination between agencies.
The Urban Institute's evaluation is ongoing. Please refer to their web site, www.urban.org, for more information. Contacts for the JOD evaluation at the Urban Institute are Adele Harrell (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Christy Visher (email@example.com).
Domestic Violence Courts Resource Guide Now Available
By Madelynn Herman
In 1984, Cook County (Chicago) Illinois established a court to hear all domestic violence misdemeanor cases. This was the first known "domestic violence court." By September 2000, the number of domestic violence courts had increased to approximately 300. The exact number of specialized domestic violence courts currently operating is not known, but the numbers continue to grow.
How can courts create a domestic violence court? What makes a domestic violence court work? Have they been evaluated for effectiveness? A new online resource guide, has been developed specifically on domestic violence courts that provides information and resources on
- developing and operating a domestic violence court,
- assessment and evaluation of domestic violence courts,
- integrated domestic violence courts,
- felony/criminal domestic violence courts,
- program examples of domestic violence courts, and
- domestic violence courts generally.
See www.ncsconline.org/WC/Education/KIS_FamVioDVCourtsGuide.pdf. A few highlights include:
- Mazur, Robyn and Liberty Aldrich. "What Makes a Domestic Violence Court Work? Lessons From New York." Judges Journal, vol. 2, no. 42 (Spring 2003).
- Progress and Challenges: Viewpoints on the Trial Courts Response to Domestic Violence. Report of the Domestic Violence Court Assessment Project. Massachusetts Administrative Office of the Trial Court (August 2003).
- Domestic Violence Courts: A Descriptive Study. Judicial Council of California, Administrative Office of the Courts (May 2000).
- Steketee, Martha Wade, Lynn S. Levey, and Susan L. Keilitz. Implementing an Integrated Domestic Violence Court: Systemic Change in the District of Columbia. Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts (June 30, 2000).
- Newmark, Lisa, Mike Rempel, Kelly Diffily, and Kamala Mallik Kane. Specialized Felony Domestic Violence Courts: Lessons on Implementation and Impacts from the Kings County Experience. Washington, DC: Urban Institute (October 2001).
- Sack, Emily. Creating a Domestic Violence Court: Guidelines and Best Practices. Family Violence Prevention Fund. (2002)
For additional resources on family violence-related topics, see the NCSC CourTopic Database. Resource Guides are also available on the topics of: Elder Abuse, Child Abuse, Domestic Violence in the Military, Firearms and Domestic Violence, Workplace Domestic Violence, Teen Dating Violence, Best or Promising Practices for Family Violence, and Family Violence Generally.
To request information or technical assistance from NCSC, please call 800-616-6164.
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