ONE STEP a victim of domestic violence can take to enhance safety and self-sufficiency is go to court and seek a protective order. It’s a step, though, that carries its own risk; studies have shown this is a time when abusers who are angry about the proceedings may well turn to violence. Why then are judges in Montgomery County not routinely employing a simple procedure that creates a safety buffer between victim and abuser?
That’s the question posed in a troubling new report from Court Watch Montgomery, the all-volunteer nonprofit group that fights domestic violence by monitoring protective order hearings and recommending improved procedures. Data collected from more than 200 cases between January 2014 and April showed that the county’s district courts “are not doing what they should” to keep victims safe in more than two-thirds of relevant cases.
The report pinpoints a practice known as “staggered exits,” in which judges keep alleged domestic violence offenders in the courtroom for 15 minutes after the victim leaves. This lets the victim leave the courthouse without fear, harassment or assault. Staggered exits have been nationally recognized as a best practice, including by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and were promoted as good policy in 2012 by Judge Ben Clyburn, then Maryland’s chief judge of District Court. But, as the report noted, only in 29 percent of the relevant cases studied did victims have the benefit of staggered exits.
“When I’m in court my whole body starts to shake inside. My hands sweat. The words won’t come. You’re afraid that after this he is going to come for you,” said one domestic violence victim quoted in the report. One abuser in 2011 tried to run over his girlfriend after she left the district court in Rockville. Court Watch learned of another woman who was harangued all the way to her car.
John P. Morrissey, current chief judge of District Court, called the matter “an area of legitimate concern” in a letter to Court Watch Montgomery Executive Director Laurie Duker. He said he would forward the report to all judges and bailiffs and promised to conduct a statewide review of practices associated with domestic violence petitions. We are glad the chief judge is acting. If there are problems in Montgomery County, which came to light only because of the unique work of Court Watch, courts in other parts of the state no doubt could also take steps to better protect victims of domestic violence.