Increasing Access to Justice

(09/20/2013)

During Safe Nest’s 36-year history, Safe Nest advocacy has been instrumental in impacting many systemic changes to help victims of domestic violence access justice.  Safe Nest has worked on policy formulation, state legislation, and placed advocates in strategic places to support victims through the legal process, including assigning advocates in family court and criminal court.  Once again, Safe Nest is at the forefront of creating positive changes; this time in the Temporary Protection Order (TPO) Court.

Over several years, Safe Nest advocates, volunteers and clients have recognized many issues in the TPO Court. As a key member of the Independent Advocates Against Domestic Violence, a local advocacy group, Safe Nest advocates met with TPO Court staff to address many concerns encountered in court. And there were many successes including changing the courtroom where TPO hearing are held to one that is safer and closer to the exits and having marshals hold back adverse parties for 10 minutes to allow victims to get to their cars in safety.  However, some of the systemic issues including not being able to provide evidence in hearings and inappropriate comments made from the bench were not being addressed by the court.

Due to several negative reports from Channel 8 and an interview by Safe Nest’s Director of Community Relations, Lisa Lynn Chapman on Ralston Reports , Family Court Administration took note and scheduled a meeting with Safe Nest directors to understand why we were being so critical of the TPO Court. 

Several issues were discussed that were documented by years of court monitoring by Safe Nest advocates and volunteers.  The Court Administration asked for documentation.  Safe Nest complied by providing a 9 page legal memo to the Court outlining the issues including specific cases and actual instances illustrating the concerns.

SOME OF THE SERIOUS ISSUES ADDRESSED BY THE MEMO:

  • Victims being denied protection orders when there was clear evidence of continued domestic violence in the record.
  • Victims being told that the TPO court did not have jurisdiction in certain matters of legal relief when it clearly did.
  • Victims denied a TPO because there had been a mutual arrest of the parties when no such criteria exists for denial.
  • Non-English speaking victims not allowed to state their case through interpreters who had been allowed in the court.
  • Victims being ordered to mediation in violation of legal protocols for domestic violence cases.
  • Victims denied protection orders because the evidence showed “only” harassing behaviors by the adverse party including yelling, threats, phone calls, texting, and hostile demeanor.
  • Cases in which the adverse party owned a firearm but the TPO court refused or neglected to order the party to surrender their weapon.
  • Evidence not being allowed in TPO court such as photographs, medical records, police reports, court records and witness statements, in many cases resulting in denial of a protection order.
  • Sexual assault within a marriage not being considered as a factor in granting a TPO.
  • The unwillingness of the TPO court to address temporary custody issues, although within its jurisdiction, even when the safety of the children is in question.
  • Inappropriate comments from the bench demonstrating bias in favor of the adverse party.
  • Victims being lectured from the bench with comments minimizing the victim’s legitimate cause for fear.
  • Victims denied protection orders because they didn’t seem fearful enough in court.
  • Victims being told that both parties should attend “anger management.”
  • Parties being ordered from the bench to attend “marriage counseling” together despite evidence of domestic violence. 
  • Victims being asked in court for their place of residence in front of the adverse party from whom the victim is in hiding.
  • Many comments made from the bench which were insensitive, biased, or victim-blaming.

These are just some of the many instances of problems advocates and victims had experienced in TPO court in recent years.

As a result of the years of documentation provided and fearless advocacy, Family Court has now responded by creating a judicial committee, led by Judge Frank Sullivan, to look at the systemic and training issues that were addressed in the meetings and memo.  Subsequently, Family Court has had one meeting with several community partners including Safe Nest to ensure all partners had a voice in coming reforms.  A few of the changes that have already occurred  include the termination of Commissioner Pat Doninger and the promise of specialized training for the new incoming Commissioner and for all of the pro temp hearing masters. 

Additionally, Safe Nest’s directors were asked to provide questions for the hiring committee tasked with selecting a new domestic violence commissioner. And Safe Nest and other community partners are meeting with the Judicial Committee to help develop the training for the incoming Commissioner and pro temp hearing masters. 

We are pleased with the willingness of Family Court to make needed changes and to include Safe Nest and other community partner in the process.  We will keep you posted on any other changes as they come to pass.