Court Watch Montgomery


What happens in domestic violence courtrooms changes lives – but not always for the better. Court Watch Montgomery’s reports analyze data we collect in approximately 1,000 protective order and criminal domestic violence hearings each year.

Court Watch Montgomery is the only organization in Maryland collecting and analyzing data about what is actually happening in domestic violence courtrooms. Our findings show that too few domestic violence victims in Maryland are obtaining comprehensive legal protection, despite our state’s strong protective order law.

Latest Report

Civil protection orders are intended to protect victims of domestic violence by directing abusive partners to stop harming or threatening them and, in most cases, to stay away from them for the duration of the order. Protective orders are one of the most effective ways to stop or reduce domestic violence when paired with a strong safety plan and proper enforcement. Final protective orders have been shown to lower the risk of contact with abusers, decrease threats with a weapon and reduce injuries. In this report, we provide the overall rates of final outcomes in protective order hearings observed by Court Watch in 2022: orders granted, dismissed and denied. We then look at these rates by individual judge. We also examine how these outcomes are affected by the presence of in-court support for victims from both victim advocates and attorneys. Finally, we analyze whether judges ask petitioners certain safety-related questions or refer them to a victim advocate before agreeing to a request to dismiss their case.

Past Reports

Staggered exits are a nationally recognized best practice intended to keep victims safe, allowing them to leave the courtroom first after a protective order hearing, with their alleged offender leaving no sooner than 15 minutes thereafter. When properly executed, staggered exits reduce the risk of confrontation between the parties outside the courtroom and enable victims and their families to get safely to their transportation home. Staggered exits can help lessen trauma and increase the likelihood that victims will return to court when necessary to obtain a final order. Court Watch has seen the use of staggered exits fluctuate by year and vary by judge, despite the fact that they are cost-free and pose no significant burden to the courts. As the courts emerge from Covid-related closures and parties return to in-person hearings, a renewed focus on staggered exits is timely. This report demonstrates that use of staggered exits in Montgomery County has continued to decline, even though the practice is recommended by the Maryland Judiciary and supported by the Montgomery Court District Courts.

This report discusses some nationwide and local information on what is known about the impact of COVID on intimate partner violence (IPV). It then describes the experience of CWM in remotely monitoring IPV hearings in Montgomery County District Court, after COVID made in-person monitoring either impossible or highly challenging and presents limited findings from the data collected.

This informational report provides a brief summary of the number of Protective Orders granted in 2019 and 2020 in Montgomery County, at the height of COVID-19. It demonstrates that during court closures, while their numbers were much reduced, there were temporary, and some final protective orders granted using both commissioners’ offices and virtual options. Additionally, during court disruptions, data indicate that relief ordered was more restrictive than during normal court operations, presumably due to judges giving priority to more dangerous cases.

This informational report provides a brief summary of the number of Protective Orders granted in 2019 and 2020, at the height of COVID-19. It demonstrates that during court closures, while their numbers were much reduced, there were temporary, and some final protective orders granted using both commissioners’ offices and virtual options. To their credit, when courts re-opened with limited capacity in June of 2020, they issued a typical pre-COVID number of final orders.

In 2020 the Maryland General Assembly updgraded strangulation and intentional suffocation from a second degree assault to first degree felony assault, indicating the seriousness of this crime. This report discusses this complicated issue in inter partner violence cases, noting the difficulty of establishing evidence of its occurrence. We examine the outcomes of 226 civil protective order cases in Montgomery County between 2011 and 2019 where strangulation was alleged by the petitioner and examine several variables, as well as reviewing the criminal and civil records of the abuser/respondents to determine if they had prior records of inter partner violence.

This report examines Montgomery County’s Data base of emergency police calls from 2017-2019 in an effort to determine whether the 911 calls are appropriately flagged as inter partner violence related, which would enable government and non-profit domestic violence agencies to identify areas in the County where IPV is prevalent, establish the degree of violence, provide a baseline for studying trends. The report finds the current 911 call coding system does not track the total number of emergency calls related to IP, using non-specific codes that do not adequately describe the type of violence reported, as well as discrepancies between what is reported by officers on the scene and the resultant coding.

This report analyzes data collected by Court Watch Montgomery in 2,997 protective order hearings from 2015 to 2018 that resulted in judges granting final protective orders, denying the requests for protection, or victims dropping their cases. In it, we examine variables associated with dismissals and denials of petitions, possible gaps in court-based or community services as well as barriers to victims following through with the courts process. Key findings are that the percentage of protective orders granted dropped from 58% in 2015 to 42% in 2018, while dismissals increased from 32% in 2015 to 49% in 2018. Moreover, since 2015 dismissed petitions have consistently increased at the same time that the percentage of cases where judges utilized best practices aimed at keeping victims in the system decreased. In conclusion, the report reiterates that consistent implementation of best practices can help foster an increased faith in the court system and thereby increase the number of victims who take the courageous step of seeking legal protection.

In this report, based on data collected in almost 3,000 intimate partner protective order hearings from 2011-2018, Court Watch examines the impact on the outcomes of final protective order hearings when petitioners represent themselves. In this long-term study, a full 46% of petitioners appeared alone, yet our data indicate that significantly fewer of them have their orders granted than those accompanied by an advocate or attorney and are three time more likely to dismiss their cases than petitioners with court support and less likely to receive orders that address the specific needs of victims and their families. Moreover, our data show that no cost advocates trained in domestic violence have an impact equal to lawyers in helping victims obtain orders and key provisions. Acknowledging that self-representation gives victims who cannot afford an attorney an opportunity to go it alone as well as the abundant self help and legal resources available to victims who use this option, we nevertheless conclude that equal access to justice is not served when victims must represent themselves, a problem not unique to Montgomery County. We recommend that all domestic violence victims who desire it but cannot afford an attorney are ensured free assistance to representation (either an advocate or pro bono lawyer) by the State of Maryland.

In this report, which analyses data collected in over 2,500 protective order hearings in Montgomery County’s District Courts between September of 2016 and April of 2018, Court Watch examines judges’ use of the five fundamental best practices we first recommended in 2011. Notably, shortly after publication of our 2011 report, in 2012, Maryland’s Chief Judge of the District Courts, the Honorable Ben Clyburn, sent every District Court Judge a “bench card” urging them to adopt the very same best practices we identified. Yet, in this current study, domestic violence victims are protected as they leave the court house far less often than they were in 2012 – in fewer than half of cases. While judges have improved greatly in engaging victims who wish to dismiss their cases about their safety, other fundamental best practices have remained at about the same low level they were in 2011. Of particular concern is that usage of staggered exits continues to vary widely by judge, with one judge staggering exits 68% of the time, while a second only used staggers 24% of the time. Among our other recommendations, we urge the District Courts to adopt a more uniform use of this basic safety protocol, or to adopt a County wide policy to ensure judges stagger exits 100% of the time.

In 1992, the Maryland General Assembly gave judges the power to require respondents in protective orders to pay emergency family maintenance (EFM) if the victim demonstrates need and the respondent has sufficient income. Rarely awarded in cases where there are no children, the intent behind EFM was to provide maintenance to petitioners who have children in common with abusers so they can meet the basic needs of their families during the pendency of an order and not be reduced to penury and forced to their abuser’s unsafe environment. This two-year study, from September 2015 to April of 2017, seeks to determine why only a quarter of final protective orders involving children were awarded EFM and to identify barriers that may prevent eligible survivors getting the financial help they need and are entitled to ensure their safety.

This is a summary of testimony given by Court Watch’s Executive Director, Laurie Duker, before the Neshante & Chloe Davis Domestic Violence Prevention Task Force. Testifying before this governor-appointed task force, with broad powers to review and evaluate existing domestic violence policies and make recommendations for change, was an opportunity for Court Watch to address problems discussed in its data-driven reports and have impact at the state level. Ms. Duker shared concerns about court processes that hamper full implementation of Maryland’s Protective Order Statute in Montgomery County courts, and mirror problems in the rest of the state. She also highlighted the need for state funded child exchange and supervised visitation services as well as continuing education for sitting judges.

This report documents the tragic deaths of 35 children state-wide in intimate partner related violence. Almost a third were killed during dangerous court-ordered exchanges for visitation or during unsupervised visits with dangerous or unstable parents. Court watch reiterates that these deaths might have been preventable were safe visitation services widely available. Increasing the number of domestic violence victims that have viable safety plans and strong protective orders would also help prevent such deaths.

This report provides quotes from our courtroom monitors’ notes documenting the many and varied innovative approaches taken by Montgomery County District Court judges and courthouse personnel in protective order hearings. These approaches have helped to enhance victim safety, ensure both parties understand the parameters of orders and empower victims, underlining how “going the extra mile” enhances effective legal protections for victims and makes our communities safer places to live.

In this report Court Watch analyzes data gathered from media reports on domestic violence homicides in Montgomery County from 2000-2015 in an effort to assess the ongoing costs of domestic violence and shed light on the most common types of cases. Among the 60 deaths, 73% of which were female and 25% of which were children, there is a common link. They often occur when victims attempts to leave their relationship with their abusers, sometimes in situations where the mother has been court-ordered to exchange her children with her ex-partner in unsafe surroundings. Over one third of the deaths are gun-related. The report underlines the need for safe child exchange centers where visitation can be supervised and the parties are not required to interact. It also recommends strengthening the process of gun retrieval from convicted domestic violence offenders.

This report examines how Montgomery County District Courts currently apply existing gun laws in criminal domestic violence dockets and suggests court policies and practices that may save lives by reducing the number of guns in the hands of convicted DV offenders. While under Maryland law an individual convicted of a crime of violence is permanently disqualified from owning or possessing a gun, in the 126 cases we heard where defendants were convicted of a crime of violence, only one was told by a judge that he was permanently disqualified and what the potential penalties were, while none of the 126 individuals were notified in writing of their personal disqualification and potential penalties. CWM recommends that judges at sentencing inform offenders of their disqualification, ask them under oath if they possess guns, describe the penalties for violating the statute and reiterate that offenders can turn any guns in to law enforcement. A clear written notice outlining the defender’s disqualification from purchasing or possessing guns should also be provided to each such defendant. To ensure that dangerous domestic violence offenders relinquish all guns immediately, we recommend that the courts work with police to share information more rapidly on all offenders who become disqualified from possessing guns.

This report focuses on the well-being of children living with domestic violence and how it is impacted by decisions judges make in final protective orders and conclude that Maryland’s Best interests of the Child standard is not being met consistently in protective orders issued by Montgomery County’s Circuit Court. Our findings indicate judges rarely order remedies available to protect children such as Emergency Family maintenance; nor do judges often take advantage of services available in the County that can provide long term benefit to families touched by domestic violence, such as ordering abusers to offender counseling and ordering children to Safe Start Child counseling. More important, judges are often forced to fashion visitation arrangements that risk further traumatizing children, impacting both their safety and that of the custodial parent, either ordering ex-partners to exchange children in unsafe environments or ordering family members or friends of the parties to act as visitation supervisors, though they may lack guidelines for how to handle this fraught situation as well as a full awareness of the children’s best interests. We urge County leaders to consider better alternatives to these arrangements: 1) affordable child transfer services and monitored supervised visitation services where children’s interactions with the abusive divorced/separated parent can be safely supervised by a trained individual.

This report is Court Watch’s first look at the protective order process in Montgomery County’s Circuit Court. In it we analyze data collected over a year long period from September 2012 to September of 2013. As with our reports on District Court practice, we focus on court processes relating to the short and long term safety of victims and the effectiveness of orders, relying on nationally acknowledged best practices. While we found Circuit Judges were overall polite to both parties, many of the national and state best practice standards widely shared by us since our first report in 2011 have not been put into common practice in our County’s higher court. Staggered exits, in particular, were properly executed in 65% of cases, but in 35% of cases were either not used or used incorrectly. Almost half of judges failed to remind respondents it was a crime to violate a protective order while a majority of the time judges did not tell respondents they must surrender firearms owned or in their possession. As judicial introductions varied widely in the amount of information offered, we recommend that the Circuit Court play an audiotape like the one now in use in the County’s District Courts before the docket begins. As the Circuit court hears most protective orders involving children, in our next report we will address issues that arise when visitation and custody matters must be decided by Circuit Court judges.

In this follow-up report, Court Watch documents 510 hearings and measures changes in the most critical areas outlined in our first report of October 2011. Notably, in areas of court process and procedure, there have been significant improvements, including a sharp increase in use of staggered exits and the introduction of an English/Spanish audio explaining how a hearing will work. Judicial demeanor has also greatly improved, with fewer incidents of disrespect. However, individual judges varied widely in their use of warnings to individual respondents about criminal penalties for violations and firearms possession, as they did in questioning petitioners asking to dismiss their cases about their safety. The result was an overall negligible change in the numbers documenting use of these best practices in our first report. Our data also raised additional concerns. Of the 510 cases we heard, there were 380 where children were involved, highlighting the dangers to children of witnessing domestic violence and the need for courts to notify petitioners of off-site resources such as The Family Justice Center and the Safe Start counseling program for children.

In this report, Court Watch’s first, we examine data collected by our volunteer monitors in District Court protective and peace order hearings between January and July of 2011. While we document the behavior of judges and court employees and are concerned by the rudeness and dismissiveness of a small number of judges and bailiffs, that is not the bulk of this report. Using the nationally recognized "Guide to Improving Practice" as our reference, we identify several fundamental best practices that impact the short and long-term safety of victims and the likelihood of their returning to court and assess how often judges utilize them.