June 8, 2012

AGROUP DEDICATED to improving the safety of victims of domestic violence in Montgomery County had a simple idea: It would watch judges handling these cases and report what it observed. In the six months since the group’s first report, significant improvements have been made; that’s a testament not only to the work of the group’s volunteers but also to the willingness of Montgomery court officials to listen, and react, to criticism.

Among the changes detailed by Court Watch Montgomery in a report released this week is improved demeanor of judges in dealing with victims; adoption of a staggered exit policy that creates time and space between victims and their accused abusers following difficult court hearings; and use of an audio introduction in English and Spanish that clearly explains how a hearing will work. “We’re very excited. Clearly there have been dramatic changes, and we are pleased with the progress,” Laurie Duker, executive director of the group, told The Post’s Mary Pat Flaherty.

Judges were initially skeptical about what to expect from the volunteers, but the group’s nonjudgmental approach to pinpointing weaknesses (judges and cases are not identified) and its suggestion of practices that have proven successful elsewhere helped to make it a credible force for change.

The group, which attended 510 hearings before the county’s nine sitting District Court judges, noted some continuing problems. Foremost was the failure of judges to emphasize to suspected abusers the consequences of violating protective orders and the requirement to turn in firearms to law enforcement. Both are included in the audio introduction, Ms. Duker told us, but it makes more of an impression when a judge looks someone in the eye and stresses that a protective order is not just a piece of paper — a phrase the group used as the title of its report, “Just ‘A Piece of Paper’? Domestic Violence Peace and Protective Orders in Montgomery County District Courts.”

We urge judges to add to the official court records lethality assessment scores gathered by police and victim advocates. These scores, which have proven to be useful in identifying women most at risk of being killed, should help determine whether a protective order is issued and the release conditions for accused abusers. Had such information been available to the judge hearing charges by Heather McGuire that her estranged husband violated a protective order, Philip Gilberti might not have been free on an unsecured bond on March 13, when he killed Ms. McGuire and, later, himself.