Domestic Violence Survivors Deserve A Better Court Model
My sister was lucky when her husband tried to kill her 18 months ago. As crazy as that sounds, it’s true. That attack against her life gave her the courage to finally call for help and escape nearly two decades of abuse. Hearing this story devastated us, her loving family who had suspected for decades but hoped it was just our imagination, but it also made us whole again by allowing us back into her life.
Before escaping through a window, she tried to calm her kids, my 11-year-old niece and screaming, crying 6-year-old nephew, who had just witnessed his father strangling his mother. “Who knew your own dad could turn out to be a bad guy?” he asked. As she waited outside in the freezing cold Grafton, NH night, hiding in the dark in her pajamas, for the one and half hours it took the police to arrive after she called for help, safety seemed so far away.
After a nightmare of months on the run, moving with her kids from one safe house to another, my sister was also luckier than many survivors of domestic violence to hear her abuser proclaimed “guilty” on several counts in a court room, further validating her choice to finally escape and save her family from a monster.
But as anyone who’s been through a court case involving family violence can tell you, the story doesn’t end with the criminal verdict. Her attacker has already been sentence, and will likely be going to jail, but he’s still a free man throughout the appeal process. Another year or more of hiding from the man who promised to kill her if she ever told.
With the next hearing came another judge, to decide if and how often she’d have to bring her kids to see a man that terrified them all. She was warned that supervised visitation was the most likely ruling, and was the best order she could hope for. Although she still feared for her life and the safety of her children, asking for no visitation at all was likely to get her branded as an “unreasonable” parent, and risked the judge awarding unsupervised visitation.
And just like that, she was pushed back into a compromise of keeping her kids at risk to avoid a potentially more serious and deadly consequence. This is how our court systems revictimize survivors of domestic violence, every day.
In domestic violence cases, there are usually at least two judges involved, sometimes three. The criminal judge oversees the criminal elements of the case including orders of protection/restraining orders (ROs), charges of violent behavior, etc.; their driving motivation is typically perpetrator accountability and victim safety. The family court judge oversees matters of custody and visitation; their driving motivation is typically ensuring equal access to children, if it can be done safely. If Child Protective Services gets involved, there can be a third judge whose focus is typically on child safety and best interests.
These disparate motivating factors and separation of access to various case specifics often results in frustrating rulings. These fractures in our court systems are leaving victims unsafe and children exposed to potential harm.
My fierce niece sits outside the visitation room every week, refusing to see the man who hurt her mother. My nephew enters hesitantly, looking for the good-behavior version of his dad, trying to figure out the answer to the question he asked the night of his father’s last attack: Who knew your own dad could turn out to be a bad guy?
It’s overwhelming for already traumatized victims to go through our court systems. Those who feel completely unsafe by court mandates abandon trust in the system and flee altogether, with or without their children. This, in turn, can result in charges against them for either kidnapping or child abandonment. It’s a lose-lose scenario for these survivors, even after they reach out to ask for help.
About a third of all reported violent crimes are cases of family violence. It is a significant enough problem to warrant its own process. And in some courts, that’s exactly what is happening.
In Portland, Oregon, family courts look very different. They follow a “One Family/One Judge” model where a single judge, familiar with the unique challenges of families and children exposed to domestic violence, is presented with all relevant information pertaining to a family. That one judge is empowered to make a timely ruling, weighing the safety and best interests of all parties.
Portland is one of four cities selected for participation in the Family Court Enhancement Project, a collaborative project of the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW), the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), the Battered Women’s Justice Project (BWJP), and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). These courts are pioneering new approaches in making custody decisions.
According to a press release announcing the project, it seeks to address “concerns from domestic violence survivors, advocates, and court staff that family courts are struggling to adequately consider the physical and emotional safety of children (and their parents) in child custody cases where domestic violence is present. Judges too have expressed concern about the balance between child safety and parental rights, and victim safety and batterer rehabilitation, but have not had access to Best Practices or Model Courts through which to imagine significant change.” This is just one initiative of domestic violence court reform.
Several other courts and lead judges have adopted the NCJFCJ’s Project ONE approach, a holistic multi-court collaborative model that puts the family at the center to achieve best outcomes. The key principles of Project ONE include: One Family-One Judge; Judicial Leadership; Implement Recommended Practice; Just and Timely Decisions; Respect; Engagement; Multiculturalism and Diversity; Collaboration; Adequate Resources; Data Collection, Analysis, and Sharing; System Accountability; Victim Safety and Empowerment; and Adult and Juvenile Offender Accountability. This is what it looks like to rebuild a broken system.
Many communities are calling for, and are creating, a better way. All children and families deserve to be served by the best court systems we can create. We must look at what is working in other communities and ask for help in bringing their successes home to our own courts. It will take those directly affected by the failings of the system and the support of people outside of this traumatic cycle to step up, speak up and lift up our brave survivors.
When I hug my sister now, I do it tightly, trying in some way to keep her safe. When I hug my niece and nephew, I do it gingerly, as if they might break. But I know that they are stronger than all of us. And when they get around to ruling the world, I have no doubt they’ll do it better than we ever did. Until then, we’re all waiting on the courts.
A version of this article was originally published as an Op Ed column in the Seacoast Sunday edition of The Portsmouth Herald and Fosters Daily Democrat, and online at seacoastonline.com and fosters.com.