Montgomery courts improving safety in domestic violence cases, watchdog says

Montgomery County District Court judges and courthouse staff have improved safety measures in domestic violence cases in the past six months, according to a volunteer watchdog group that monitors cases and issued a report Monday.

“We’re very excited. Clearly there have been dramatic changes, and we are pleased with the progress,” said Laurie Duker, executive director of Court Watch Montgomery, which began using 25 courtroom observers last year to attend restraining-order hearings to critique judges and the system.

Some lapses noted in the group’s inaugural report in October remain. But the overall trend is good, and sometimes very good, according to the latest report, which cites progress in reducing risks to victims and in emphasizing to offenders the consequences of violating protective orders.

For the most recent review, conducted from October to April, the volunteers attended 510 hearings before the county’s nine sitting District Court judges. About 3,000 people a year, mostly women, seek protective orders against a partner or former partner in Montgomery, officials said.

Judges and their staffs have made dramatic progress in the practice of staggering the departures of victims and offenders after hearings, the report says. Briefly delaying the departure of abusers gives victims a chance to leave court safely and reach transportation. In the latest review, the judges staggered departures in more than half of their cases, compared with 15 percent during the previous review.


Judy Whiton, left, and Laurie Duker, right, run Court Watch Montgomery, which monitors restraining order hearings in Montgomery County. (Daniel Morse/WASHINGTON POST)

The demeanor of judges also “improved significantly,” the report says. Six judges — up from three last year — had a perfect record of treating the parties to cases respectfully, the report says.

Among the lingering problems, the report says, were a judge who “regularly” started court at least 20 minutes late and two judges who used “rapid-fire questions” in a way that suggested that they were trying to push through agreements.

The reports do not name judges.

The courts also have begun using an audio recording in English and Spanish that helps explain the process. The taped introduction plays before the judge takes the bench. It points out that violating a protective order is a crime and that a person restrained by court order is required to turn over any firearms to law enforcement officials.

But, Duker said, judges could do more to deter violations by using “the power of the bench” and repeating those warnings in court.

Observers said the judges could also ask more probing questions when a woman drops a request for a final protective order at a hearing within a week of her receiving a temporary order. The questions might unearth coercion and also reinforce that the court process is a serious matter, the report says.

More than five years ago, Duker, 55, who has an MBA from Yale University, took a job with the county helping women obtain restraining orders. But she quit to launch the watchdog program because of what she saw in court.

By fall, she said, the group intends to begin observing bail bond hearings for violators and to begin attending restraining order hearings in Circuit Court, which generally handles more serious cases.

To underline the need for rigorous enforcement, the report cites the case ofHeather McGuire. Her estranged husband, Philip Gilberti, 51, killed her in March while free on bond after allegedly threatening her in violation of a protective order. The couple were going through a divorce.

Police said Gilberti shot McGuire, 36, and pushed her out of a van on Connecticut Avenue. The van sped off, and McGuire’s body fell to the street, where commuters and police attempted to save her. She died at the scene, and Gilberti was later found dead, an apparent suicide, in a house in Rockville.

Duker said the McGuire case is one reason her group will begin monitoring bond hearings.

Mary Pat Flaherty works on investigative and long-range stories. Her work has won numerous national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
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