No one likes having anyone watch over their shoulder. Sometimes, however, having a watchdog is exactly what is needed to ensure we don't miss anything as we carry out our responsibilities, either in the private sector or the public sector.
Court Watch Montgomery is one such important watchdog non-profit organization. This group of volunteers has been serving Montgomery County for the last five years as a watchdog over the handling of domestic violence disputes.
Every domestic violence case contains some degree of anger, often accompanied by the need for power and control on the part of the abuser. It is how consistent the courts, through their judges, clerks, bailiffs, interpreters and so on remain ever cognizant of that reality that determines the level of trust domestic violence victims will have with the system to protect them and encourage them to come forward.
I had the opportunity to shadow co-founding Executive Director of Court Watch Montgomery, Laurie Duker, during District Court proceedings and was able to fully appreciate the work of this organization. On the particular day I spent in court observing the proceedings, I came to fully appreciate that domestic violence victims are not limited to any particular income level or ethnic group. The victims of domestic violence I saw in court that day ranged from a single mom needing an interpreter to a high level Montgomery County bureaucrat to a diplomat.
As a result of the very detailed reports of findings and recommendations resulting from the literally thousands of hours of monitoring District Court hearings by the more than fifty volunteers who comprise Court Watch Montgomery, important changes to how domestic violence instances are now handled in the County are quite apparent. These changes include something as simple as staggering by fifteen minutes the exit from court by the victim and the offender so that the victim can safely reach transportation without fear of retribution. It includes the playing of a recording in both English and Spanish before the court session begins that explains to both parties the meaning of particular court actions and legal terminology so that they better understand what will transpire during the court proceedings. Additionally, the Circuit Court now posts hotline numbers in five languages in every female bathroom at court to make it easier to seek help when in need.
While quite encouraging to see various recommendations adopted by Montgomery County in a sincere attempt to improve its handling of domestic violence instances, there is still work to be done. An upcoming report of findings and recommendations will include such issues as the need for judges to continue to regularly impress upon abusers that violating a protective order may result in jail time. Judges have all too often neglected to make this clear.
Also to be covered in the report is the vulnerability of allowing unsupervised visitation between abusive fathers and their children. Montgomery County currently does not have a formal program that provides supervised visitation. This recommendation includes the need for the Montgomery County Council to include modest funding in next year's budget for an initial pilot project to provide community based safe child exchange visits as well as supervised visitation services. 70 percent of victims ask for this in court.
A major recommendation in the report will be to ensure that domestic violence victims are made aware by the court that they may be eligible for emergency child support. Failure of a judge to inquire about the need for financial support can dramatically impact the victim's ability to remain independent of the offender. District Court judges tool often direct victims to the Circuit Court for child support. This can take as much as a year and is unnecessary since emergency child assistance is available under Maryland's protective order law.
Make no mistake about it, domestic violence and abuse is an issue people do care about and quite passionately I might add. This passion was demonstrated by the recent turnout at a press briefing held September 29th on the Lawyer's Mall in Annapolis to highlight some new protections against domestic AND dating violence that went into effect in Maryland October 1st.
These changes now include:
- People in dating relationships being able to obtain a protective order instead of just a peace order which offers less protection; protective orders require the surrender of firearms to law enforcement for the duration of the order. In 2013-2014, firearms were used in 74% of the domestic violence deaths.
- Judges will have new latitude to order additional relief in protective orders that they deem necessary for short or longer term victim safety. This includes ordering an abuser to stay a certain distance away from the victim, provide health insurance coverage, return a green card or other documentation essential to a survivor’s ability to be secure and remain independent.
It should also be mentioned that legislation passed in 2014 changed the burden of proof for those seeking final protective and peace orders from the high standard of “clear and convincing evidence” to a “preponderance of the evidence.” This was a very significant change since it served to make it easier for victims of domestic violence to obtain a final protective or peace order.
Apparently, not only do "the people" recognize the importance of addressing domestic and, now, dating violence, but our legislators in Annapolis heard the voice of "the people" and are taking steps to address this most serious and pervasive societal problem.