In the first week of April, BWJP staff sat in on a Zoom call with over 75 people in Miami-Dade County working together in responding to intimate partner violence during the current public health crisis. Professionals on the call included judges, court staff, domestic violence shelter advocates, people working with farmworkers, batterer intervention programs, law enforcement, prosecutors, and many others. This call was led by Judge Carroll J. Kelly of the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida, who has been leading efforts to respond to intimate partner violence in Miami-Dade County. This article will discuss what the Miami-Dade County CCR and court system is doing in response to COVID-19. It will highlight how the system came to a consensus on centering safety for victims-survivors of intimate partner violence in South Florida.

Miami-Dade County hosts one of the first integrated domestic violence courts in the U.S., in existence since 1992. The court has grown to 14 judges, working out of 5 courthouses running full criminal and civil calendars. The Coordinated Community Response in the county is hosted by the court and involves up to 75 different partners, with representation from community- and county-based domestic violence programs, law enforcement agencies, homeless assistance groups, universities, farmworker groups, prosecutors, defense attorneys, disability access specialists, universities, judges and court administrators, universities, and many more. Close cooperation on intimate partner and sexual violence cases across a wide variety of stakeholders has taken place in Miami-Dade since at least 2005.

Miami-Dade County responding to the pandemic

The Florida Supreme Court issued an order on March 13 for all courts in the state to consider and implement procedures to keep people safe during the pandemic. Immediately, domestic violence judges in Miami-Dade County established work groups and worked 16-hour days for 2 weeks until a framework for virtual courtrooms was established. Three judges, a case manager, and a judicial assistant met as a technology committee. They worked to evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of various platforms, the ability of litigants to access technology and engage with the court as well as the unprecedented nature of criminal and civil process handled virtually. The committee came up with protocols and procedure to be adopted by the  domestic violence court, including on the submission of evidence. The judges and administrative staff then agreed to adopt these procedures at all virtual court hearings of the Miami-Dade domestic violence court during the pandemic.

Over the second half of March, judges and staff members continuously held practice sessions on videoconferencing, immediately followed by questions-and-answers. After the basics were worked out, interpreters and other professionals who work in domestic violence court were brought in to participate in Zoom moot court sessions. The integrity of the court process was prioritized, with all judges and court staff trained on the new standard procedures to better ensure consistency when the virtual courtrooms opened.

Keeping courthouses and services open

Miami-Dade focused on maintaining core functions while keeping the public and CCR members informed. Many CCR members on the call held in early April reiterated the importance of the general public knowing that courts are open for emergencies in intimate partner violence cases, and that shelters, and supportive services are available to victims-survivors. This informal information campaign combats the mistaken assumption that these services are closed. Soon after the Florida Supreme Court issued its order, physical distancing at clerks’ offices was enforced by separating court clerks and setting up tables in between clerks and petitioners to ensure proper social distancing. Emergency protection orders and family court hearings are being held over Zoom, which allows hearings to be video and/or audio recorded.  These recordings serve as a backup in case of technical difficulty by the digital court reporter, who is also on the Zoom hearing and recording.

As the court decided on virtual court procedures and trained staff, it posted information and trainings on its website so that parties, attorneys, and CCR members could learn about how virtual court hearings would proceed before making an appearance. By the end of the month, a virtual meeting was held in which the new processes were explained to CCR members, feedback was given, and procedures improved. The second week of April was set aside for just a few court hearings to be held, with all most of that week’s litigants represented by attorneys, so that judges and court staff could observe and think through the evidentiary issues that videoconferencing presents. Since then all the domestic violence judges are holding remote final injunction hearings. It is estimated that around 25% of litigants have stated that they are uncomfortable with attending court virtually and so were granted continuances of the final hearing.

Miami-Dade courts decided to implement an e-portal for the duration of the crisis where all litigants register with an email. This e-portal allows parties to submit evidence, including photographs and documents, ahead of the hearing.  Miami-Dade judges also allow evidence to be submitted during Zoom hearings through screen share. The domestic violence court is issuing protection orders and sending these through the e-portal, which allows petitioner victim-survivors to have orders on their phones or other electronic device in the absence of access to a printer at home during the pandemic. Finally, the courts have waived notarization requirements for the duration of the pandemic.

Ensuring language accessibility and the safety of immigrant victims-survivors

The Coordinated Community Response and the domestic violence court in Miami-Dade agreed that centering the safety of victims-survivors and ensuring continued accountability for intimate partner violence during the pandemic must remain a priority during the pandemic. According to the last census, 51% of Miami-Dade County’s residents are foreign-born, with 72% of all residents speaking a language other than English at home. With this consideration very much in mind, provisions for immigrant and limited English proficiency victims-survivors in virtual court hearings were immediately addressed.  Miami-Dade already had qualified interpreters available at court hearings, but now they would be available over Zoom, and provide interpretation virtually.

During the planning call attended by BWJP staff, a number of victim service providers pointed out that immigration deadlines and ICE enforcement has not paused, and so that it is important that certification of T and U Visas through court, law enforcement departments, and the prosecutor continue. This way immigrant victims-survivors would continue to seek help from law enforcement and participate in investigations. The Miami-Dade domestic violence court is handling all requests for T and U Visas when immigration deadlines are a concern to victims-survivors.

CCR members expressed concern during the meeting about the immediate economic impact of the crisis, including widespread unemployment and financial insecurity on victims-survivors. CCR members are hearing from victims-survivors returning to abusive homes. Microgrants are currently being distributed to victims-survivors to allow a limited measure of independence, including basic necessities and transportation, funded by a recent grant from the AIDS Healthcare Foundations.

Zoombombing, the phenomenon where trolls hack into Zoom meetings and post racist and misogynist slurs publicly, was also discussed during the call. Measures to protect against Zoombombing include having all Zoom meetings be protected by a password and having all participants wait in a virtual waiting room, be identified by court staff, and then let into the virtual hearing room. The courts allow and even encourage parties to anonymize their displayed names on Zoom, e.g., having parties be identified as “P” for Petitioner and “R” for Respondent.  Litigants are also encouraged by the court and trained by victim advocates to turn on virtual backgrounds on Zoom to maintain the anonymity of their physical location.

Lessons from the crisis

This pandemic opened up an opportunity for Miami-Dade to experiment with broadening access to people in the community which before struggled to access the justice system. The crisis accelerated a long-term CCR goal to allow petitions for injunctions to be filed remotely, and soon the county will offer remote filing of protection order petitions at kiosks located in police departments, victim services agencies, and other locations throughout the county, thanks to a MacArthur Foundation Access to Justice grant.

A community-wide commitment to keeping the public and victims-survivors informed about the shift to virtual hearings during the pandemic is matched by an emphasis on letting those committing abuse know that the crisis is not an excuse to escape accountability: that Batterer Intervention Programs and other court requirements are still mandated, even if remotely. The domestic violence court is setting compliance calendars and having special court sessions for drug court and mental health court participants.

Due to the need to introduce parties to the virtual courtroom, the novelty of offering evidence remotely, and because of the need for consecutive rather than simultaneous language interpretation, virtual hearings have been taking significantly more time than those previously held in-person. Before judges were hearing 16-24 cases a day, while this April judges have been handling 5-6, although this rate is expected to improve somewhat.

Overall, in the opinion of Judge Kelly, the experience of Miami-Dade domestic violence court during the pandemic has shown that although virtual courts may be a significant benefit to those needing access to justice for issues such as pre-trial release,  traffic violations or small contractual disputes, evidentiary hearings involving intimate partner violence which rely heavily on credibility determinations and risk and danger assessments by judges are best heard in-person. The Miami-Dade domestic violence court will continue to hear civil and criminal domestic violence cases and emergency motions via Zoom until such time as it is safe for the court to re-open.