Published: June, 2022| BWJP

Monitoring of Protective Order Hearings in Domestic Violence Cases

When victims of domestic violence take the difficult step of seeking a protective order, they often enter the courtroom at one of the most frightening times in their lives. Ensuring that these victims receive responsive and respectful justice and access to vital services is the mission of Court Watch Montgomery (CWM), a nonprofit based in Maryland. Over the past 11 years, CWM has monitored and collected data in over 11,000 domestic violence protective order hearings and made impactful data-driven reports and recommendations. “People do not always think about domestic violence if it does not affect them personally, but it affects all of us. As a society, it deserves our attention,” said Leslie Hawes, Esq., the new Executive Director of CMW. “We help bring about needed change in a systematic and meaningful way by collecting data from in-person court monitoring of protective order hearings.”

Best Judicial Practices and Positive Results of Court Monitoring

CWM is the only organization in Maryland dedicated solely to monitoring intimate partner violence cases. Trained on-the-ground volunteers monitor and collect data in domestic violence protective hearings by physically observing these cases in court. Best practices that CWM notes in all cases that it observes are: (i) implementation of staggered exits between the petitioner and respondent, (ii) inquiry as to whether the respondent possesses and should surrender a firearm to the sheriff, (iii) the presence of an interpreter when needed, (iv) inquiring as to the presence of children and the need for a welfare check, and (v) the general demeanor and professionalism of the judge. In addition to these practices, CWM also advocates that a judge (i) thoroughly explain the protective order process to all participants at the start of every session and (ii) inquire whether a petitioner feels safe when they decide to drop a case and explain that they may return at any time. “Our presence in court helps remind everyone of these ‘best practices,’” said Ms. Hawes. As a direct result of CWM’s reports, Montgomery County has seen: (i) additional funding for bailiffs, (ii) adoption of necessary procedures such as protected waiting rooms, staggered exists and safe child visitation exchanges, (iii) an increase in the number and quality of protective orders grants and (iv) reduction in access to guns by abusers. (See CWM’s 2019 report.)

 

Effects of the Pandemic on Domestic Violence Cases

When the courts were closed due to the pandemic, certain hearings in Montgomery County were suspended or made virtual, which meant that access to justice required access to technology. During 2020 and the beginning of 2021, CWM struggled to gain consistent remote access as the court transitioned through different platforms and procedures including Skype and audio-streaming only. With each change in platform, volunteers were trained in the procedures to gain access, sometimes finding that the court had switched to a different platform or procedure without notice, resulting in missed hearings.

Despite these challenges, CMW was able to pivot and adapt by revising its monitoring forms, retraining its volunteers for remote monitoring and pilot-testing the process to ensure the consistency and validity of the data collected. As a result, CWM ultimately collected data from 128 criminal hearings and 82 protective order hearings from December 2020 through May 2021. The findings of this data was shared by CWM in its recent Covid report, which highlighted the need for greater transparency in remote hearings in Montgomery County. In contrast, the court watch program in Prince George’s County Maryland which monitors bail hearings was able to expand its program during Covid as their courts used easily accessible Zoom technology which allowed monitors, including dozens of new volunteers, from all over the country to monitor hearings in their jurisdiction. This disparity of remote access highlights the possible need for permanent remote access to all public proceedings, including domestic violence hearings, to ensure transparency going forward.

CWM’s report also raised concerns about how remote access may have caused a reduction in the presence of attorneys and victim advocates, thereby negatively impacting the ability of survivors to obtain justice. Additionally, according to a July 2021 report by the Montgomery County Council Office of Legislative Oversight, the closure of the courts in Montgomery County during Covid resulted in a backlog of cases that may take months to clear. This may have a significant and long-lasting impact on domestic abuse survivors, many of whom feel as if they cannot leave their situation until divorce or custody issues are resolved. “‘Something we are keeping on eye on going forward in the near future, “said Ms. Hawes, “is whether cases of domestic violence have increased due to the pandemic as victims may feel like they are even more trapped in an abusive relationship due to economic concerns or a lack of access to services.”

 

CWM - Back in Courtrooms

Now that the courtrooms are fully reopened, CWM’s volunteers are back to in-person monitoring of protective orders hearings several days a week throughout the county. Ms. Hawes says that CWM hopes to collect data in nearly 1,000 hearings in 2022 alone, which will form the basis of its annual report in early 2023. If you interested in learning more about CWM or starting a court watch in your area, visit their website or contact its Executive Director at: lhawes@courtwatchmontgomery.org