Where domestic violence victims in Maryland file for protective orders greatly affects their access to full justice. We have work to do!

County and state policymakers have appropriately put substantial thought and funds into court-based services for domestic violence victims. Far too many victims still come to court and are forced to fill out impossible-to-understand petitions alone and stand before the judge alone. Full-time victim advocate services are still not regularly available in every courthouse’s civil and criminal domestic violence courtrooms and in a private space where victims can tell their story and get help.

But there is another story here that has, thus far, been overlooked by the Administrative Office of the Courts, other policymakers and service providers.  A full 40-50% of intimate partner violence petitioners in Montgomery County don’t go to court or the Family Justice Center to begin their quest for safety. They go to one of 3 Montgomery County Commissioner Stations after business hours or on weekends when courts are closed. The rate is about the same state-wide.

Here’s the problem.  Domestic violence victims who begin their journey for legal protection at a Commissioner Station receive no help of any kind from a victim advocate. Nor are victims immediately linked to needed services such as the Abused Person’s Program, who can provide an advocate to go with the victim to their first hearing in court (which is within 72 hours) and counseling and support groups. Victims are not automatically told about all the services that the Family Justice Center (English, Spanish) has available, including pro-bono lawyers, a food pantry, and immigration legal assistance.

Once a victim goes to court to turn their Commissioner-granted Interim Order into a Temporary Order for one week, they are directed to the Family Justice Center. Does a three day delay in getting the help of a victim advocate really matter? The answer is yes.

The almost half of domestic violence victims that file for protective orders at Commissioner Stations have significantly less access to justice than do those who file at the courthouse or the Family Justice Center.

Many victims who go to the Commissioner Stations for help are traumatized and may also suffer from traumatic brain injury or PTSD.  Many others do not speak English as their first language. Filling out four pages of an English form that requires 2 years of college to comprehend it is a huge challenge. Inevitably, many victims miss key questions, misinterpret what information is necessary, or forget to include certain aspects of the assault or past history.

With the help of a lawyer at a final protective order hearing, some victims may be able to overcome gaps in their written petition. But only about 28% of victims in Montgomery County Maryland have lawyers.

Court Watch Montgomery recently raised our concerns about victim services at the Commissioner Stations with Montgomery County District Court Administrative Judge Patricia Mitchell. We are discussing possible solutions with other non-profits and county service providers.  Something as simple as a mobile phone with a victim advocate at the other end to listen and answer questions could make a world of difference.  Low literacy materials in the county’s five top languages would help. A short looped video could help calm petitioners, and provide key information. We need to do all this, and more.