The District opened a hospital-based court and support services office in Southeast Washington yesterday to handle a growing number of domestic violence cases in the city and to offer women east of the Anacostia River a more convenient place to get protection from abusive husbands and boyfriends.
The D.C. Superior Court's satellite Domestic Violence Intake Center, at Greater Southeast Community Hospital and linked via a Web camera to the main courthouse at 500 Indiana Ave. NW, will save abuse victims an arduous trip downtown to seek legal protection, counseling and other assistance.
"This is a wonderful day we've looked forward to for a long, long time," said Judge Brook Hedge, presiding judge of the court's six-year-old Domestic Violence Unit. "We're going into the area of the city where we believe there is the most need."
The number of protective order petitions is up 15 percent this year, according to Hedge, who noted that 62 percent of those who file them live in Southeast Washington. But it is often very difficult, she said, for poorer women to find babysitters or leave jobs to come downtown for several hours.
"It's heart-wrenching to see someone have to come down to court to get help," Hedge said. "You can see the bruises on their faces. And there can be long waits. I've had mothers breast-feeding while sitting here."
With the Web camera setup, Hedge said, judges downtown will be able to see and hear the petitioners and issue two-week temporary protective orders. She cautioned, however, that abuse victims still will have to come to court for civil protective orders, valid for one year, because that requires a hearing for which the respondents are notified.
While hailing the Southeast office, some domestic violence advocates chastised the District for acting too slowly in distributing federal funds earmarked for crime victims assistance and for failing to spend any local funds on domestic violence programs.
"The District has not put one penny of its own money towards programs to help victims of domestic violence," said Marna Tucker, a lawyer who resigned in April as chairman of the Mayor's Commission on Violence Against Women. "It was clearly not a priority" of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).
Tucker said the staffs at women's shelters and other small nonprofit groups that work with abused women "are doing the work of saints" but have chronic problems continuing their programs and paying employees when the city holds up funds.
Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety, said yesterday that city officials recently won a two-year fight in Congress to have more flexibility in spending $16 million in victims' compensation funds. The first chunk, about $1.5 million, she said, will be allotted in the next month, including $250,000 to the mayor's commission to help service providers obtain more federal grants.
The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a consortium of District and federal agencies that deals with the city's criminal justice system, provided a grant of $30,000 to pay for the first year's rent and some other expenses for the satellite office. D.C. Superior Court spent an additional $20,000 from its capital budget to get the Web camera and computer equipment. Verizon Wireless donated $2,500 and 20 cell phones for emergency use by abuse victims.
A coalition of service providers will be seeking other grants to continue operating the satellite office after its first year.
About half of all violent crime calls in the District are related to domestic violence, according to police, and the problem has overwhelmed the city's few emergency women's shelters and clogged the court with thousands of cases a year.
The Domestic Violence Intake Center is the point of entry for the court system's Domestic Violence Unit, which handles about 4,000 petitions a year for civil protection orders. Until the opening of the satellite office, it was the only place in town where abuse victims could find legal, medical and other emergency services under one roof.
The center is staffed by paralegals from the Office of the Corporation Counsel and a private legal advocacy group, Women Empowered Against Violence (WEAVE), who interview victims seeking help. It also has representatives from the police department and the U.S. attorney's office to take assault reports, obtain arrest warrants and prosecute abusers. Victims' advocates from the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence offer support for court appearances and, with other counselors, provide referrals to emergency shelters, assistance to crime victims and other services.
The satellite office also will provide legal aid and counseling for domestic violence related to substance abuse.
Meshall D. Thomas, a veteran intake counselor with WEAVE and a survivor of domestic violence, was credited by Hedge and others with making the satellite office happen. She watched yesterday as court officials tested the Web camera, exclaiming: "This is so exciting. I'm very happy to see my vision become a reality."