A Conversation

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Recently Court Watch volunteer MaryBeth Mullen and Laurie Duker, Co-Founder and Executive Director sat down to talk about questions people often ask us and where Court Watch Montgomery is headed.

Laurie: Prior to Court Watch, I worked as a victim advocate at the Rockville District Court. It intrigued me because I wanted to work with people in crisis, one-on-one. I loved the work but what I found infuriated me…there were so many barriers to domestic violence victims getting the legal protection that would help them become self-sufficient and free from violence.

A wonderful woman that I worked with, who had five children and was staying at the domestic violence shelter, had to move because her time at the shelter was up. She and the kids had to move to a homeless shelter because the husband refused to help with money for rent. We succeeded in getting a judge to order the husband to pay. But the husband was livid and followed her to her car after the hearing. He threw her to the ground and kicked and hit her. It could have been prevented so easily if the judge and bailiff just held the husband in the courtroom for 15 minutes after the hearing.

The courts, in a lot of ways, are a machine. They process individual cases, and they aren’t looking at every step in the system from a victim’s point of view.  With Court Watch, I saw a chance to identify problems using data but also to share positive approaches that one or two judges were trying so the rest of the judges could also consider trying them. Montgomery County has a lot of judges that care about protecting victims, and I thought they’d be open to changes once they understood the extent of the problems and how simple some of the solutions were.

Laurie: Absolutely, they work! Protective orders aren’t perfect, but they work for about 70% of victims. They really help the greatest number of victims stop their abuse quickly and permanently. Protective orders do have to be paired with a good safety plan, and court-based advocates can help victims develop those. Sometimes the only thing that will keep a victim safe is shelter or making sure the abuser goes to jail. But even then, a victim can get more support in a protective order that they can’t get anywhere else – rent money, use of a jointly owned car, and counseling for children who have witnessed violence that could otherwise be blocked by the abuser.

Protective orders (with safety plans) are the single best solution to domestic violence.  Shelter saves lives but it’s temporary.

Laurie: Judges have told us that it is very interesting to get feedback. They hadn’t this type of detail provided on how they’re handling cases. One judge told a volunteer that “we like you, we’re just a little scared of you!” Adjudicating protective order cases can be very repetitive and it’s easy for judges to get in the habit of skipping a step or two. It’s helpful to be reminded.

Laurie: We have many judges who work hard, show respect to both parties, and are open to new ideas for handling domestic violence cases. For the most part, I think the problems with how domestic violence cases are handled are systemic, although there are a small handful of judges whose demeanor is so inappropriate that, in my opinion, they should not be on the bench. Were working at both levels.

Changing the rate at which judges use fundamental practices is very difficult, given the nature of the court system. We all want an independent judiciary but leaving every policy and procedure (which aren’t matters of legal interpretation) to each individual judge or bailiff doesn’t work well either. We can have uniform state-wide safety procedures without infringing on judicial independence.

I do think we’ve changed the norms in protective order courtrooms. I’m very proud of that. But we have a long way to go and I think more procedures need to be codified – victims can’t wait for slow-changing norms and shouldn’t have to hope they “hit the jackpot” in terms of which judge handles their case.

The wide variation in approach by our judges is a problem from a due process point of view. Victims shouldn’t get totally different outcomes depending on which judge hears their case.

There is a fair amount of subtle sexism and some outright misogyny displayed by our court personnel in domestic violence hearings. I’ve witnessed numerous judges who are more likely to find testimony from a male credible than from a female. A common attitude is that many women use exaggerated claims of domestic violence solely to get more time with their children in divorce settlements. Are there women who abuse the system? Sure. There are people that abuse every system, but that’s a small number, not the norm.  I’ve seen far more abusers misuse the system to punish and control ex-partners.

I’ve also witnessed judges who minimize abuse against men because, in their belief system, real men stick up for themselves.  When the violence is between two men, many judges tend to see it as rough-housing or mutual abuse.

Laurie: Yes, Court Watch is unique. The majority of domestic violence non-profits are mostly focused on helping individual clients – and more of that help is desperately needed. Lawyers and advocates see every day, the barriers or gaps in court practices or services that prevent victims from securing the legal protections they need. But because they have individual clients to think of, it is harder for them to give feedback to the courts or media, feedback that might irritate a judge. They also pay a price with judges if they raise issues about another judge’s egregious violations of the Judicial Code of Conduct. Court Watch can do that because we are totally independent and don’t have cases in front of judges. But we work closely with non-profits who provide direct services. They are part of our feedback loop to make sure that we’re working on the issues that victims and survivors feel are the most urgent.

Court Watch is the only group to amass a big dataset that shows the exact degree to which fundamental practices are being used, or not, by court personnel. We share our data with state judicial leaders. They understand that what’s happening in Montgomery County is probably happening, to different degrees, across the state.

Laurie: There are a lot of stereotypes about domestic violence victims and I have found none of them to be true. I’m not sure why the myth persists that domestic violence only happens to poor women.

More than 1 million Marylanders are projected to be victims of domestic violence at some time in their lives. The data is pretty consistent that about 15% percent of victims are male. People from every single county, every gender, race, economic level and sexual orientation become victims each year, but only a fraction of them seek protective orders from our courts. Many are too scared or ashamed to come forward.

Laurie: I think it is a miracle that anyone is ever brave enough to leave. It’s extremely dangerous – more dangerous than staying with the abuser, in the short-term. It’s 70 times more likely that a victim of domestic violence would be murdered in the few weeks after leaving their abusive partner than at any other time in the relationship. If your partner tells you that they are going to try to kill you if you leave, or that they would take the children and literally disappear if you tried to leave, these types of threats produce tremendous trauma for the victim.

It’s hard to underestimate how much victims who have the guts to leave, and who come to court are counting on us. Our courts and community need to work non-stop to make sure that every victim who walks through a courthouse door has full access to justice and is empowered to end the violence. The same is true for the abuser. If domestic violence is going to end, we need to help abusive people change their behavior.

Laurie: Abusers are county residents too. I care just as much about them as the abused. Don’t get me wrong – their abusive behavior has to stop immediately and permanently. But they deserve the exact same respect and careful application of the law that victims do in our courts.

I talked with over 1,000 abusers when I was an advocate. The great majority of them grew up in terrible situations where they witnessed terrible things. We can’t afford to ignore abusers, because when all is said and done, the abuser is probably going to be violent with someone else unless the court requires substance abuse or mental health evaluation and treatment, or a batterer’s intervention program – or jail, in the rare cases when that’s the only answer.

Laurie: I’m a corny, idealistic American. It makes me furious when our institutions, like the courts or Congress, don’t operate in a way that builds a better America where everyone has equal access to justice. But I also know that our democratic institutions need constant input and engagement from ordinary people to hold them accountable and improve things alongside them. I love trying to build “a more perfect union.”

I also didn’t anticipate that I would meet so many astonishingly bright, compassionate, experienced county residents who wanted to make lasting changes their community. It’s been one of the great delights of my life. I’m just awed by the team of people I get to work with every day.

Laurie: Court Watch is hard at work implementing our strategy to make the Maryland judicial system more accountable and transparent. There are so many citizens and organizations that can join us in that fight!

I’m confident that we can shift judicial norms and get our courts to embrace “best practices” that produce better outcomes in domestic violence cases as standard practices. I think we will have a clear, state-wide court policy in the next 2-3 years that enshrines safety policies such as protected waiting areas in the courthouse and “staggered exits” so victims are protected from intimidation and other forms of abuse.

Right now victims who are asked to participate in criminal prosecutions aren’t given the support or services they need. I expect many of those reforms to be implemented. Won’t it be great when every victim asked to testify has a court companion to support them and answer questions, and more abusers are ordered to substance abuse, mental health, and offender intervention programs, and guns are more efficiently removed from convicted abusers? Also, I envision a new system of services to help the 50% of victims who file their petitions at Commissioner’s Stations – none of them are getting any help when they need it most.

Court Watch is taking a detailed look now at how other states maximize the accountability and transparency of their courts. Utah has a wonderful model. We’re assessing ways to make the judicial nomination and appointment process more transparent, to create a fair system that evaluates judges and provides voters with information on judges running for election. We also need a swifter, more transparent process for addressing toxic judges who violate the Judicial Code of Conduct. We can get there, but we need a strong state-wide coalition.

I’m a big believer in not re-inventing the wheel. We’d like to develop training modules and an advanced, ready-to-use database that can quickly analyze data. We hope to share our tools with other groups interested in holding courts accountable.

We need a network of domestic violence court watch programs across the state and nation so that we can learn by comparing data and effective approaches to stop intimate partner violence quickly and permanently. I think we’ll see many reforms that will improve how the Maryland courts handle domestic violence cases but we need help from within our community to ensure our Agenda For Change will spur needed reforms in how the Maryland courts handle domestic violence cases.