Domestic Violence in Washington, DC, Superior Court

Domestic Violence in Washington, DC, Superior Court

DC Public Safety Radio

http://media.csosa.gov

Radio show at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2014/09/domestic-violence-washington-dc-superior-court/

LEONARD SIPES: From the Nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety. I am your host Leonard Sips. Ladies and gentleman today’s show is on Domestic Violence it’s a hot topic in the news. We wanted to explore what is happening here in the nation’s capital. We have three principals sitting before our microphones today. Jose Lopez is a Judge he is the Judge, the presiding Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, the Superior Courts Domestic Violence Unit a position that he has for several years now. We have William Agosto he is the Director of the Superior Courts Domestic Violence Unit which means he supervises all staff within the unit and we have Natalia Otero, she is with DC Safe and Advocacy group, one of the partners in the two Domestic Violence Intake Centers and we want to thank you all for being here. Judge Lopez, William Agosto, Natalia Otero welcome to DC Public Safety.

JOSE LOPEZ: Pleased to be here.

WILLIAM AGOSTO: I’m pleased to be here.

LEONARD SIPES: Alright, I’m really happy for you gentlemen and Natalia for you to be here today because you know domestic violence is a hot topic in the news, it is something that is of extreme concern but before we get into the gist of the show Judge Lopez just give me a sense of the Domestic Violence Court within the Superior Court here in the District of Columbia.

JOSE LOPEZ: Well it’s a specialized unit with four judge’s handling cases. The civil, restraining orders and the criminal cases and we have fantastic staff, well organized and we do about five thousand criminal civil restraining order cases a year and about three thousand criminal cases a year.

LEONARD SIPES: Five thousand restraining orders and three thousand criminal cases that is eight thousand cases in one city for domestic violence and those are just the cases that are reported to law enforcement.

JOSE LOPEZ: That is correct. I mean the DC police department gets about 90 calls a day for domestic violence.

LEONARD SIPES: 90 calls a day that is an amazing amount of calls.

JOSE LOPEZ: It’s tremendous.

LEONARD SIPES: So domestic violence is an issue here for us within the District of Columbia.

JOSE LOPEZ: It is a big issue.

LEONARD SIPES: Alright and you have been presiding over this court for how long Judge Lopez?

JOSE LOPEZ: It’s been about seven years.

LEONARD SIPES: That’s a long time and that has got to take its toll on you after hearing at this point thousands of cases.

JOSE LOPEZ: Well it doesn’t take a toll in a negative sense I guess it shows me the challenge that we are presented and the difficulty that we have with domestic violence and the need for further education of the community.

LEONARD SIPES: And this is one of the reasons why we are doing the program. William Agosto the director of the Superior Courts Domestic Violence Unit. Give me a sense William as to what it is that you do in terms of the Superior Court as as it pertains to domestic violence.

WILLIAM AGOSTO: In the DV Unit we process the cases. We create the calendars for the Judges. We schedule people to be able to get before the court and that happens when somebody comes in with an emergency request to see a Judge that same day and a couple of weeks later when they return to get an order that would last for an extended period of time.

LEONARD SIPES: So in terms of the protective orders your, it is up to you to handle the administrative structure to quickly get that protective order and that is a huge responsibility.

JOSE LOPEZ: Correct. It is one that we take very seriously.

LEONARD SIPES: So if that request for a protective order comes in at 4’o clock in the afternoon you guys have got to scramble to make sure that it happens.

WILLIAM AGOSTO: Yes sir.

LEONARD SIPES: Alright and that is an amazing responsibility.

LEONARD SIPES: Natalia Otero your DC Safe give me a sense as to what DC Safe does and your part in this partnership.

NATALIA OTERO: Yes of course DC Safe is the 24 hour crisis intervention agency here in the District of Columbia and we are charged with being available to domestic violence that person and to any first responder and to the court. We have a program that is called The Legality Assessment Program that allows us to try to find the percent of the population that is more at risk for homicide or re-assault and once we identify this percentage of the population we attempt to partner with government and non government agencies to provide expedited services so we go ride-alongs with the Metropolitan Police Department. We have a response line for people to call in. We are able to provide emergency assistance with the Courts with filing either emergency orders or civil protections orders. We attend Court every single day with clients. We are also able to actually house people within an hour of a violent incident and crisis shelter which is another important aspect of safety along with the court and the criminal justice piece of it.

LEONARD SIPES: You know it is so common throughout the United States to have domestic violence cases fall through the cracks and I am not being patronizing because you are sitting in front of me and because I am part of the DC Criminal Justice System but in the District of Columbia ordinarily and especially as it applies to the Superior Court again I am not simply being complementary, I want people out there to know that ordinarily the Superior Court does it well. It doesn’t matter what topic it is, whether its drug court other specialty courts, the domestic violence court it sounds as if between yourself, Judge Lopez and William and Natalia you have got it pretty much figured out in terms of how to process a massive number of domestic violence cases that come to the courts attention.

JOSE LOPEZ: We put significant emphasis on client’s service and we are constantly struggling to make sure that every case that comes in that door for an emergency order will be seen by a judge that very same day for safety reasons.

LEONARD SIPES: And that is important and that doesn’t happen throughout the rest of the country. So what we do in the District of Columbia we take for granted but I think we do set a bit of a standard for what is happening throughout the country in terms of Domestic Violence am I right or wrong William.

WILLIAM AGOSTO: You are correct particularly the development of partnerships that we have created with different stake holders in the community and other agencies making sure that we all work together to have a coordinated response to domestic violence.

LEONARD SIPES: Now I want to get into our personal perceptions on this just for a second. You know a lifetime ago when I was with the Maryland State Police I went to, well it was my first exposure to a domestic violence case, went to a domestic violence case and the woman opened the door and her head was twice its size. There was blood running down her. A neighbor had called and the victim insisted that we not take her husband, not remove her husband from that house and it was obvious battery and as far as I was concerned it was an aggravated assault with is a felony. I was so affected by that. I never saw my parents fight, let alone hit each other and I remembered that from hence forth every domestic violence case that I would ever go on and one of them involved a shooting, an attempted shooting. These are terrible tragic events in the lives of human beings. We say the words domestic violence and I am not quite sure it really carries the true impact as to how destructive this act is. So I just wanted, for three people who have been involved with the issue of domestic violence for years, and years, and years, give me Judge Lopez I am going to start off with you, how does it affect you after all these years on the bench.

JOSE LOPEZ: Well I have learned a lot about what domestic violence is and you know what those cases with the bloody head, those are minimal compared to those that you don’t see any blood and there is a lot of human suffering, there are a lot of destroyed families, there are a lot of depressed children and depressed family members and go out onto the street every day and just don’t have a solution to their problem. And like that lady who would not her husband arrested, we have the complexity that there is a certain attachment and its difficult for them to just get him out of the house or to have his arrested because they are interdependent with each other so that creates a greater complexity in those cases.

LEONARD SIPES: This is something that has an enormous impact not just on the victim but the victim’s family, the larger community. It is not unusual at all to have kids involved. William let me ask you the same question. You have been working this beat for quite some time do you every just get frustrated at the larger issue of why people batter other people.

WILLIAM AGOSTO: Of course it can be frustrating but we have to keep in mind domestic violence cases are crimes committed against a vulnerable individual. A crime is a crime. We need to make sure that we do not forget domestic violence is not a different action but we have to make sure that we look at them as crimes. That people don’t forget that. These individuals are related the act that is committed needs to be treated and handled as a crime.

LEONARD SIPES: Natalia okay you’re with DC Safe you specialize in domestic violence cases certainly you have an opinion on all of this.

NATALIA OTERO: Yes I think what is important really and I think something that Judge Lopez said kind of when you speak about this and that is in addition to the complexities to the relationship there is also a complexities and how many systems a victim may have to access in order to make herself safe and we have to be sure that we are keeping our word and like William said this is a crime ultimately and the important thing is to make sure that we have the appropriate multidisciplinary response to it because what happens when a victim reaches out and she finally is ready but the abuser might be knocking on her door the next day because he was released or it has to be dealt with on multiple levels not only through the courts but through the Criminal Justice System and to all organizations that provide supportive services and housing for these victims and the children.

LEONARD SIPES: But this is a process oftentimes and I am going to be stereotypical here but I believe it to be true, mostly male perpetrators against female victims although I do know that women can and do batter men, that this is something that’s ordinarily taken place over a course of months or years. This is something that she ordinarily has had to suffer through for a long time until the point where somebody actually calls the police whether it be a neighbor, whether it be a friend or whether it be herself. This is something that is filled with emotion a long term event and something that again, once again is really devastating not only to generally speaking the female victim but the kids involved and it is not unusual for kids to be involved. Natalia I am going to let you continue with that answer.

NATALIA OTERO: Yes I definitely think that that is something that feeds into the response that a victim has about their own abuse but also their own perception of risk and that is really important because we are not in the relationship and I think it is also kind of crucial to understand that there are factors there that are creating a situation where the victim is thinking that they need to, that they are mitigating the situation and a lot of times that has to do with not involving the police. We are acquiescing to certain things with you know keeping, maybe like walking on egg shells so to speak but they are mitigating their risk with their responses and sometimes the way that the mitigate the risk does not make sense to an outside person.

LEONARD SIPES: This is a very overwhelming event in the life of that victim. I mean this is something that is almost paralyzing people always ask me why doesn’t she leave. This is a very paralyzing event. There are kids involved, there are economics involved, th her own safety involved and so I want to take some of the pressure off a victims a tad to say that often at times again its paralyzing and generally speaking the female victim just doesn’t know what to do. Your honor did you want to take a crack at that?

JOSE LOPEZ: well that is just the most significant point of it all. The victim, especially the female victim usually is not so much that she doesn’t know what to do it is that she is juggling all these things and trying to balance the safety of herself, the economics of her situation, the safety of her children and she is making the best decision she can under those heavy duty emotional circumstances and it takes a very long time to finally get a clear head to say I must leave this relationship.

LEONARD SIPES: The bottom line and the question goes out to all three of you. The bottom line is that we want anybody who has any information about domestic violence to get involved in reporting it to law enforcement so then the Superior Court and any court throughout the United States can take appropriate action right. We desperately want people to report acts of domestic violence.

JOSE LOPEZ: Appropriate action is correct.

LEONARD SIPES: Okay I hear you, hear you loud and clear. Alright within the District of Columbia I complemented you all before. You have two Domestic Violence Intake Centers how do they work, what happens William?

WILLIAM AGOSTO: We have one at the Superior Court it is a conglomerate of agencies, Community Agencies and Government Agencies that provide services to the individual when they come to Court. Particularly those in intimate partner relationships and they get assistance with preparing their paper work, talking to the police, talking to the prosecutor, requesting support, they get services from the advocacy group that Ms. Otero belongs or they will conduct a lethality assessment try to determine how lightly this person is to eventually be harmed further by the respondent. We will also talk to them about safety planning, give them referrals for different agencies that provide either counseling, legal assistance, housing and lately some new partners have joined in who will help with doing a forensic medical examination getting some photographs and preparing the evidence for future hearing and another agencies working with victims that have problems of mental health when they come to visit us.

LEONARD SIPES: So you have specialists in all different areas whether it be forensic, mental health, assistance with child related issues, you have those specialists there to immediately provide assistance to the victim when he or she comes into the Domestic Violence Court.

JOSE LOPEZ: Yes.

LEONARD SIPES: That’s amazing; I mean, again most jurisdictions throughout the United States don’t have those resources and the process in the Court room do all cases go before a Judge or do all cases go to trial.

JOSE LOPEZ: No, not all cases go to trial. We have what is called attorney negotiators so when the parties come to court for the first time we attempt to negotiate a civil protection order by agreement and in many cases we will go into an agreement for a civil protection for 12 months. Some few cases will need to go to trial and the judges are prepared to take them to trial.

LEONARD SIPES: Okay, now the civil protection order says what to the perpetrator?

JOSE LOPEZ: Well the civil Protection Order which is in effect a restraining order it tells the perpetrator that you may not assault, threaten or harass or stalk the petitioner and you shall stay about from the petitioner at least 100 feet away from her home, work place and also if he needs drug treatment or any mental health treatment that also is in there. If in fact a shared residence we also say to him that he must vacate the residence for safety reasons.

LEONARD SIPES: Okay so there is mental health treatment involved, substance abuse treatment involved, we very specifically say what you can do and what you can’t do and those orders I think are supported by my agency Court Service and Offenders Supervision Agency as well as the Court itself.

JOSE LOPEZ: Yes your agency is extremely helpful in this respect because they monitor the compliance with a civil protection order which is one of the few jurisdictions that has that luxury and so they even have vocational training for some of the people that need it and if they don’t go to the mental health or the drug treatment CSOSA the Court Services Agency will inform us about it so we can bring the case to court to try to correct the issue.

LEONARD SIPES: And if necessary we can put that person on GPS monitoring and monitor that persons whereabouts 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and figure out whether or not he is violating that order.

JOSE LOPEZ: Correct.

LEONARD SIPES: And if he violates that order we immediately bring that case to the attention of the Court.

NATALIA OTERO: Right I think, oh sorry. There is another step that CSOSA is actually working on directly with DC Safe it is part of the lethality assessment project. Let’s say that a victim calls the police or somebody calls the police. The police comes out realizes that it’s a domestic case; they call us immediately we send somebody out to meet with the client and provide immediate services and lethality assessment. We then are providing information with the clients request to CSOSA and saying this is a high lethality case. They can then turn around and say o well that particular person is already under supervision and we have certain that then they can respond to so we are talking care of working with the client and providing those expedited services and they are on the other end dealing with the person that is supervising in terms of not only holding them accountable but also in some cases making them aware that they know and creating kind of an intervention plan for the perpetrator in the hope that that will create a broader safety net for the victim.

LEONARD SIPES: We are more than half way through the program Ladies and Gentleman. We are doing a program today on Domestic Violence here in the nation’s capital in Washington DC. We have three people before our microphones Judge Jose Lopez he is the presiding Judge at the Superior Courts Domestic Violence Unit. He has been there for seven years. William Agosto he is the Director of the Superior Courts Domestic Violence Unit which means he makes sure that all things happen at all times and we have Natalia Otero and she is with DC Safe and Advocacy Group that is one of the partners in the domestic violence program. If you are interested in the work of the Superior Court in the District of Columbia probably one of the better court systems in the United States and after 45 years in the criminal justice system I can think I can say that with authority www.dccourts.gov. We want to thank the Superior Court for setting up this program specifically Leah Gurowitz. Okay ladies and gentlemen where do we need to take this discussion now the civil protection order has been issued? We are talking about all the different agencies that are involved. We are talking about my agency Court Services and Offender Supervision Agencies, lots of other agencies. In essence what we are trying to do is provide a comprehensive resource for again I am being stereotypical here; men are victimized by domestic violence but generally speaking, its female victims. What we are trying to do is provide a comprehensive array of programs for the victim and for the perpetrator at the same time correct.

JOSE LOPEZ: Correct because one of the things that we need to do is to get that education to the perpetrator to avoid recidivism from the Domestic Violence Intervention Program, family training, parenting classes and so forth.

LEONARD SIPES: You know we have individuals within our community and in any community throughout the United States so it is not just an issue for Washington DC who feels that they have a perfect right to strike their victim, to strike either their child or their wife or their husband. That this is something, for whatever reason, I’m not going to say with cultural, I’m not going to say anything. I simply know that there are men who feel that they have the right to strike a woman and sometimes this is maybe the first time in their lives where they are facing authority figures who are saying you can’t do that and a lot of times there are drugs involved and a lot of times there is alcohol involved.

JOSE LOPEZ: Oh yes and it’s a generational thing, it is an educational thing. You know one generation after another generation educating each other that violence is correct, the violence upon the children and violence upon the women is correct and so it is extremely difficult to get that out of their head. That is destroying the family, not only the victim but also the perpetrator.

LEONARD SIPES: There is a lot of people suggesting that domestic violence or getting into child abuse and neglect is the heart and soul of many of the problems that we have within the criminal justice system if that nine-year-old is raised and sees him mother being beaten that almost leaves an indelible mark upon his psyche for the rest of his life.

JOSE LOPEZ: That becomes normal for that child.

LEONARD SIPES: Yes William did you want to.

WILLIAM AGOSTO: And it seems to all be rooted in the sense that this is different, that if you hit your partner it is different than you hit somebody on the street and culturally we must make sure that people understand an assault to one of your loved ones is as problematic and is as wrong as an assault to a stranger.

LEONARD SIPES: Absolutely, alright we have crime victim’s compensation program. We have the Court Supervised Visitation Center; these are all components of the Superior Court in terms of Domestic Violence. Tell me what those mean.

JOSE LOPEZ: The supervised Visitation Center is using those cases where parties share children and the victim would not feel safe having the respondent, the abuser come into their presence, either pick up the children at their home or a mutually agreed location. So the court provides a neutral location where the victim can drop off the children. The respondent can come by and see the children in the presence of a social worker for a few hours a week so that relationship between the child and the other parent continues or in cases where maybe it is not necessary to keep that parent from keeping the child with them. They can take the child but they can use that location for pick up and drop off of those children.

LEONARD SIPES: Alright and what is the other program the Crime Victims Compensation Program. There is the possibility that because they are a victim of a violent crime they can be compensated for some of the expenses they had going into that victimization correct?

JOSE LOPEZ: Often you have a victim of domestic violence by leaving a relationship they are going to leave behind their positions and their resources and other times there is also concern that the respondent is going to come back to the location where they know where they can be found. The Crime Victims Compensation program can provide temporary housing at locations that are confidential. The can provide assistance with medical expenses. They can provide assistance with counseling for the victim. They can also help with getting yourself set up in a new place eventually after you have gone through this process and for those that want to remain at their own home they may be able to help you, for example the door was broken down by the respondent. They may be able to replace that door; to make sure that you place is secure.

LEONARD SIPES: I realize that I may have over played my hand in terms of my praise of the Superior Courts Program because there are going to be people listening to this program throughout the United States and beyond the United States. These services in one way shape or form are available throughout the United States generally speaking, so I do the message to domestic violence victims in Utah, in Montana, in California is to still find out what is available to you by contacting your prosecutors office, contacting law enforcement or contacting your local domestic violence center. Natalia saying all that what is the biggest hurdle for getting victims to come forward and seek help.

NATALIA OTERO: Wow, I think obviously every case is different and I think both the Judge Lopez and William can vouch for the fact that they can be radically different because things might be going on. I think the biggest hurdle really is information and I really think coordination of services. We find that when the victim is provided immediate tangible assistance within the first 24 hours they are more likely to move forward with criminal cases. They are more likely to move forward with the protection order hearing because at least within those first 24 hours those tangible needs about shelter and safety are being met.

LEONARD SIPES: By, I’m sorry go ahead please.

NATALIA OTERO: I think the next big hurdle is then kind of thinking about how do I get myself in a stable situation in the aftermath of this. What does that mean for me? Am I now being connected to other agencies in the City like the Department of Housing or am I having, you know there is a lot of things that go into becoming stable and there is so many different government entities that are sometimes involved in this.

LEONARD SIPES: But the bottom line is a lot of people out there take a look at those of us in government and they don’t have the highest opinion of us. I have taken a look at some of the surveys and I think the point is, is that I think especially when it comes to victim services, especially when it comes to victim services, especially when it comes to domestic violence but in all other cases I would say but especially in these two cases we do care. There are people within DCC. There are people at the highest level within the Superior Courts. There are people at the highest level throughout this country who want women and those men who are victims but particularly women especially with children to come forward and they are going to receive a caring response, not a bureaucratic response, not a harsh response but they are going to be embraced by the Criminal Justice System. Judge Lopez.

JOSE LOPEZ: Oh yes and one of the things that we try very hard is training our judges, training our staff to understand it. To understand when an angry person comes to you don’t let it be contagious because they are not angry at you they are angry at their situation and we are prepared to deal with it and work with them and show them that we care.

LEONARD SIPES: Natalia we have got only about a minute left in the program. Again I would imagine the people there at DC Safe are not there to get rich, they are there because they are passionate about serving victims of domestic violence and victims of crime.

NATALIA OTERO: Yes that is correct. We are a non-profit agency and we have over 25 employees that are very committed to the work all from different fields, from law to criminal justice, to women studies and I think the most important thing that we are trying to accomplish really is to be able to create kind of an all encompassing safety net for victims and creating a situation where when a victim does reach out that they get the assistance that they need the first time around and that it is something that is coordinated and responsive to not only the needs of herself and the children but also the friend or accountability on the other piece and it takes an entire system of people and an entire continuum to be able to provide these services.

LEONARD SIPES: Okay Natalia you have got the final word. I think the bottom line between everybody in this room and you via Skype Natalia is that there is hope for that person who is being abused and the criminal justice system is really geared up to help that individual. So I want to thank everybody who has been on our microphones today, Judge Jose Lopez, William Agosto and Natalia Otero. Thank you all for being here ladies and gentlemen thank you for listening to us. This is DC Public Safety we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.

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