In domestic violence cases, courts frequently struggle with issues involving children. Back in 2015, Cook County, Ill., decided to create a program to specifically address this gap. The Child Relief Expediter Program provides a voluntary and confidential process to help parents with orders of protection, develop safe and effective visitation plans, and address other child-related issues. Over the years, the program has evolved and expanded to assist hundreds of parents on domestic violence cases. In this podcast, Cook County Judge Marina E. Ammendola and Child Relief Expediter Stephanie Senuta describe the benefits of the program and provide tips for courts interested in doing more.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
NIDA ABBASI: At the Center for Court Innovation, we work with courts around the world that are hoping to enhance how they approach cases involving domestic and sexual violence. One of the most challenging issues is what to do when there are children involved. How do you address child-related relief safely and effectively? Cook County responded to that exact need by creating the role of a child-relief expediter. The child-relief expediter helps to provide a process for parents with orders of protection to navigate the court system and obtain appropriate child-related remedies. Keep listening to learn more about the role and how they help keep families safe.
STEPHANIE SENUTA: So what we were seeing was folks were violating their orders of protection the moment they walked out of the courthouse, or they were dropping their orders in order to figure out what to do with the kids, or one parent was going years without seeing the kids, again, none of which were really often what the survivor parent was wanting. And so now with this program in place, we're hearing from advocates, from lawyers, from parents, the clients are walking out of this courthouse feeling safer having had the opportunity to go through this program.
ABBASI: Hi, I'm Nida Abbasi with the Center for Court Innovation. Today I'm excited to welcome two guests from Chicago, Illinois, Judge Marina Ammendola, Circuit Court Judge in the domestic violence division, and Stephanie Senuta, the child-relief expediter in the Domestic Violence Courthouse. How are you both doing today?
JUDGE MARINA AMMENDOLA: Good morning, Nida. I'm Marina Ammendola, a judge in domestic violence, and I have the honor of working with Stephanie Senuta, our child expediter and expert on the issues we're here to discuss today since she has been involved in the program since it began.
SENUTA: Good morning, Nida. Thanks so much for having us today.
ABBASI: Great, and thanks for joining us. So we know Cook County created the role of the child relief expediter. Can you tell us a little bit about how the position came to be?
SENUTA: Sure. So back in about 2013, 2014, a group of stakeholders in our courthouse came together that was spearheaded by our presiding judge and our court administrator at the time, and that stakeholder group included judges, domestic violence advocates, lawyers who represent both petitioners and respondents researchers. All sorts of folks came together to determine what were some of the gaps and maybe issues that we had in our courthouse. One of the big gaps that was identified was how our court was handling the child-related relief on the orders of protection. Previously, child-related relief was not often addressed on orders of protection here in our courthouse, or contact between the respondent parent and the children was cut off completely, and that was often not even what the survivor parent wanted. Oftentimes, part of the survivor parent's safety plan is actually coming up with a safe access plan for the respondent.
And so from that stakeholder process, this issue was identified. We initially got some funding for technical assistance to start thinking through this program, and then that ultimately led to funding from the Office on Violence Against Women through the Family Court Enhancement Project, which included a bunch of different things. The expediter program was one of them. What we are essentially doing is helping parents put together safe parenting plans that address their safety concerns regarding the parents and regarding the children, so really screening for safety concerns, identifying the nature and the context of what is going on with families, the implications of the abuse, and then helping families craft a detailed plan that addresses these issues. And this was a pretty big change in our courthouse as well as in the DV community. The use of dispute resolution when there's domestic violence has been frowned upon in a lot of ways because if it's not done well it can actually lead to more safety issues, so this was really an opportunity to craft a dispute resolution program in a way that enhances safety for families.
ABBASI: When you were first thinking of creating the position at Cook County did whoever was on that team notice similar positions in other jurisdictions?
SENUTA: So no, there were not really many models to go off of because we have a standalone domestic violence court here, so this was really trailblazing in a lot of ways. And we had a lot of help from our federal technical assistance providers. But what there were models in family court systems, and, in Chicago, the DV community and the mediation community have been working together for decades to create a safe approach for mediation in the family court system, and so we really built off of that model and use that partnership.
ABBASI: To help our listeners get a better idea of the role, what exactly does a child-relief expediter do? What are the key elements of the program?
SENUTA: The expediter program is really a dispute resolution program for parents when one parent has an order of protection against their children's other parent, and the parents are interested in negotiating the child-related remedies on the order of protection, so parenting time, how the exchange is done, communication between the parents, communication between the parents and the children, financial support, those types of issues. We're never negotiating whether the order of protection will be granted. The judge has already made that decision before the case is sent. It's very similar to mediation in a lot of ways. For example, the process is voluntary so nobody can be forced to participate or forced to reach a resolution. The process is confidential, with certain exceptions for safety that are carved out. The expediter's neutral, so not on one parent's side or the other, but I always tell folks I'm not neutral when it comes to safety. So a big part of my job is checking in on safety. We do most of our sessions via shuttle negotiation. All sessions start that way where parents are in separate spaces and are screened very thoroughly to determine if the process is safe and appropriate, as well as to start to determine what safe parenting plan outcomes could be, but then oftentimes the whole process continues via shuttle. And for me, this was very appealing because I had worked in domestic relations court for a long time where I saw a lot of folks who had at one point had orders of protection in place but nobody had helped them figure out what to do with their children. We always say it's magical thinking to think that two parents are not going to have any contact with each other if you don't help them figure out how to do that safely.
So what we were seeing was folks were violating their orders of protection the moment they walked out of the courthouse, or they were dropping their orders in order to figure out what to do with the kids, or one parent was going years without seeing the kids, again, none of which were really often what the survivor parent was wanting. And so now with this program in place, we're hearing from advocates, from lawyers, from parents, the clients are walking out of this courthouse feeling safer having had the opportunity to go through this program.
AMMENDOLA: I can only add this. From the courtside, we work collaboratively with the child expediter. In Chicago, Stephanie Senuta is extraordinary. So the screening process is the key to the success of our program. Starts by the judge looking at a set of facts and determining that this is a case that should go to the child expediter. Sometimes a victim or petitioner will know to ask for the child expediter if they have an advocate they're working with, or a lawyer, but the success has been in sending the right cases based on what the petition says, so the screening is hugely important. But from the courtside, when they come back, the respondent feels heard and the petitioner often wants the respondent in the child's life. It deescalates the case in lots of ways, in terms of the parents, but we're creating an appropriate plan for their individual life. When they come back after their session, even where they don't reach a resolution, there is a satisfaction them having been able to tell their story and someone truly listen, the petitioner and the respondent.
ABBASI: When it comes to how effectively courts and communities respond to domestic violence we know that collaboration is a huge factor, how does the expediter work with and collaborate with other stakeholders?
AMMENDOLA: In our courthouse, the referral goes to Ms. Senuta. She gets all the paperwork that would go to the child expediter that goes with the case. If there's an advocate involved, the advocate is also a facilitator. If there are lawyers involved, they're welcome to participate in the program. They're often very helpful with their own clients, as are the advocates. But the court will get a verbal report on the case. I am always on purpose writing, when they're successful, that they have had a successful mediation. It's affirming to the parents involved that they are able to, in good faith, participate in the program, and the court as well as the expediter are letting the parents know the children are very aware of what's happening no matter what their age are. When they're called to task on that, that this is occurring in front of your five-year-old who's aware of the language you're using or the conduct you're showing your child. So it's a sit-up moment for them in the courtroom, and certainly reinforced in their expediter program.
SENUTA: For me, I think a big success of this program, and something that actually makes me feel more comfortable in my role doing this every day, is the strong partnership that we have both with the judges and then also with DV advocacy communities. My initial meetings were oftentimes with advocates with lawyers, lawyers who represent both parents, to really think through how do we screen for these cases, what are good referrals, what do you see your clients needing, where do you see the pitfalls being? So there's been a real open door policy from the beginning to develop these protocols together and to course correct along the way. Same thing with the judges. There's a lot of, early on especially, identifying what makes a good referral. We spent a lot of time early on with the judges thinking through our confidentiality protocols. What could I report back to the court? What would be an exception to confidentiality? What has to stay confidential? And we have a real, I think, trust and respect in terms of how we go about that. One ongoing example of collaboration was when COVID happened, and everything suddenly had to go virtual. I spent a lot of time working with all those same stakeholders and partners to come up with protocols for how to do this remotely, and we were thinking through a whole different level of safety concerns and screening protocols. And so the judges helped with that. The advocacy community helped with that. Another key partnership I think that's helped to make his program successful is our partnership with our evaluators or researchers who are from Loyola University from the Center for Urban Research and Learning. From the very beginning, they've helped us to ground this project in data and information, and they did judicial surveys very early on to find out what would help judges make decisions on cases with child-related relief, like what's missing, what do we need? They did focus groups with survivors. They have been evaluating and researching this program ongoing through an additional grant.
AMMENDOLA: There are times where the expediter has to terminate a session due to the risks involved for either somebody of one of the parties, the victim perhaps, or the minors, and she will disclose to the participants that there is going to be a referral to the Department of Child and Family Services, and will let us know that. And she also can communicate with the Department of Child and Family Services regarding the safety issues pertaining to the minors, which is I think a very important part of the program. And that is one of the areas where she lets them know that that is never going to be confidential, as a mandated reporter.
ABBASI: Since the inception of the expediter position back in, sounds like 2013, do you feel like the role has evolved or changed at all?
SENUTA: I think the foundational tenants of the role are still the same. The way we've set it up is really still the same, but we've adjusted a lot of things along the way as the program has grown and as we've learned from things day to day. So one thing, just logistically, is that we used to refer all cases right in the moment. So a courtroom would call me and say, "We've got some folks standing here, can you see them?" I would see them, we would have our session, they would go right back before the judge, and I would do a couple of cases in a day. And as things got busier and this program was more in demand, that became impossible, and so we had to start scheduling cases in advance. I think actually has really helped things, because it helps parents make sure that they set aside the time to do this.
Previously they didn't know they were going to still be at the courthouse for extra hours, so people felt rushed. I felt rushed. Judge Ammendola and I often have cases where we'll do multiple sessions where I’ll say, "Judge, I think we need to try this out for a while and see if this really works for this family, so could we have them try this for a month or six weeks and then come back and we'll do a second session?" One thing that's changed over time is different stages in the process where cases are referred. Initially, we thought this would be a lot of cases that a respondent agrees to a plenary order but wants to see their children, and still do get plenty of those. We also get cases where the judge has done the plenary hearing, but the case is referred to me to figure out the child-related relief.
We do a lot of modifications of existing orders to modify the child-related relief. But the one area I think we didn't anticipate that we actually get a lot of cases is we call them temporary agreements. These are all temporary, but it's between the emergency order of protection and the plenary hearing. So a respondent might say, "I don't agree to this order of protection." So there's already an emergency in place, so the case is getting set for a plenary hearing, but the parents want to come up with a temporary plan to put in place while they're waiting for that plenary hearing. And that was actually something that came from the advocacy community asking if that was a stage where we could use this process, because they see that a lot with their clients.
AMMENDOLA: And that addresses the absolute need where the petitioner wants the child to see the respondent, and they don't have a resolution on their adult issues but they want to create this access in a safe and appropriate way for the children, and it meets their need to have ongoing contact in a safe way. And it's also the child's need, because for the child, if this child is going to have both parents in his or her life, that should continue as soon as possible in the most appropriate way. This is a high-volume courthouse. We have delays in getting before a judge for a full plenary hearing. Many of these cases go downtown either to parentage court or divorce court. They're going to have another whole process and more delay. So it does also meet a child's need to have consistent parent contact as soon as possible so there's some normality for a child, versus not seeing or having any contact with their father for six months, or their mother because that also happens here too.
ABBASI: And based on your experiences and what you've seen in court, how do you see the expediter role impacting safety for survivors and children?
AMMENDOLA: Well for the court it creates the environment for a frank and open discussion that's not constrained by the rules of evidence. Many times people do not have lawyers. They're in a safe environment when they're talking to the expediter, who's identified as somebody who works for the court. But it will talk to both of them. It accomplishes some reassurance of the victim petitioner. I don't particularly like sending people to a police station, but if you drop off at school in the morning and somebody picks up from the afterschool program, you're de-escalating the family. Or is there a neutral person that they'll both agree to do the transition? Is the child old enough to walk to the curb to meet the father? Removing the third party if there's another person in one of the parents' lives that is causing more tension during the transitions. Again, it's focused on making everybody in the process feel heard, for one thing, and then safer in the transition.
SENUTA: I think specifically in my role one thing that's been helpful with regards to safety is I've really incorporated the Battered Women's Justice Project's SAFeR approach that they have trained a lot of folks on. It keeps us from jumping from A to Z, and instead says let's find out specifically what's going on for this family, specifically about the nature and context, implications, and then what I'm able to do is then craft a very detailed and nuanced agreement that works for that family for their safety concerns based on their children's needs and their situation, instead of using a one size fits all type of solutions.
ABBASI: We know that cases involving intimate partner violence are hard and sometimes it feels like people tend to underestimate just how difficult they can be to resolve, especially when there are kids involved. What are some ongoing challenges for child-related relief in intimate partner violence cases?
AMMENDOLA: Depending on the age of the child, manipulation of the child, undue influence over the child where one of the parties is trying to diminish the other parent. I like to tell the parents that they are the most important teacher in their child's life. How do you talk to each other is what the children learn is how you talk to others and how they should be addressed. What they see is what they learn to think is appropriate. So those are real serious matters, and there is an agreement that the child expediter Stephanie uses that says, "You will not disparage or speak negatively about the other party." Some people take that to heart, other people do not. But sometimes more the language that's in a petition and I'll say to a party, "If your child is hearing this, they think that's how a man should talk to a child or a wife or a woman in their life," or the other side of that. "You're teaching your daughter that is okay for somebody to address you that way."
SENUTA: I think one other challenge with child-related relief, because of all of these safety concerns there's such a high need for supervised parenting time and such a lack of resources with regards to supervised visitation and safe exchange centers. We have a number of fabulous centers in Chicago, but the amount of people that need those services in balance with the people with the services that are available, it's just we have so many more folks that need that than we can refer there. We refer a lot of families to the supervised visitation centers, but we also end up having a lot of family members supervising contact, and sometimes that works really well and sometimes that can lead to all sorts of other conflicts.
AMMENDOLA: We need to get these children into some kind of routine and some regular contact with the parents, both parents, and when there's delays for a supervisor that makes that harder. And when we can have an appropriate family member involved in that, that makes it more natural for the child.
ABBASI: There's a lot of sites across the country and abroad that are interested in what you've created in Chicago with the child relief expediter position. Is there any advice you have for those interested in pursuing or implementing a similar role?
SENUTA: One of the things we've sort of touched on already is needing to do this in a collaborative way, working with as many stakeholders as you can to make sure that you're not creating this in a silo. It's important if you're bringing somebody into a role like this you have, if possible, a pretty seasoned professional. I had been mediating for about 15 years at the point that I came into this role, and I had been trained in domestic violence and handling domestic violence cases for a long time. And so I think this is a very intense type of role to be in, and it's definitely not for everyone, and so I think finding the right kind of person that has the right balance of experience can be tricky. So I think that's important.
And one other thing I'd like to say is I think it is important if you're developing a program like this to think about how you measure success of the program. For example, if success is only measured by how many cases we resolve, agreement rates, resolution rates, and I think we start to sometimes reduce safety because if folks are feeling pressured to push towards resolution or settle cases, then that can sometimes lead to safety issues, where I actually think some true measures of success are knowing when to terminate a session when it's not appropriate, knowing when it's not appropriate for this process to even be used to begin with, as well as I think a huge measure of success is do the parties feel like any sort of parenting plan that we have negotiated meets and addresses their safety concerns?
And that, I think, has to come from the top down, so there has to be judicial support behind that. As I mentioned before, I never feel pressured, for example, from Judge Ammendola to go settle this case. It's, "Let's see if this process works for this family, and if it's not appropriate or it doesn’t work, then the judges absolutely understand that the case is going to come back to them, and then it needs to go through the next steps in the judicial routes." But that support from the higher ups I think is incredibly important.
AMMENDOLA: I'm going to add to, because Stephanie would never say this, but she's extraordinary, and that's what I tell the people in my courtroom, that they have the opportunity to be with one of the best, if not the best in the county, and they should use their time and good faith and use their time wisely, because there isn't going to be anybody better who's going to help them. Sometimes they make progress, sometimes they don't. Sometimes it's a complex family, they're going to see her again. But they all know they can reschedule with her or tell me they want to see her again. So that is the excellent extraordinary expert we have. But I would say to people creating a program, you do want an experienced person at the top of your program. You do need judges to understand the benefits from this versus a hard-line approach to having an expediter address children's issues with families.
But I would encourage anybody to use a pilot program and get as many people who are, the language you like to use is stakeholders, but people who are in the game to understand the value of the program. I would encourage people who want to create a program like this draw up a pilot program, get as many people to understand the benefits of the process, and their constituents who seek services, the people who try to get protections, will benefit from a program like this. Always.
ABBASI: One of the biggest concerns for sites is making sure they have the funding and dedication to keep their projects going. Can you discuss how you work to support the sustainability for this role specifically?
SENUTA: Our presiding judge and our court administrator, who were here when they got the initial funding for this program, I know were working on sustainability from the very beginning, both by working with our national technical assistance providers to think through that, think about how other jurisdictions are sustaining programs, but also on the really detailed county budget level making sure that the success of the program was continuously shared and that folks were updated and that this stayed on people's radar screens. The success of the program I think has made a huge difference in the county sustaining it, and at the time when the grant was about to expire and there needed to be a decision about whether this was going to become a full-time county program, the domestic violence advocacy community wrote numerous letters of support based on their experience with the program and sent those letters to the county board, to the chief judge, and I think all of those things made a difference in sustaining this program.
So back in the spring of 2018, Cook County shifted this from grant funding and made it a full-time funded county position. We've also been partnering with folks to get additional grants that are connected to this program. Loyola's Center for Urban Research and Learning obtained a research grant where they're evaluating this program and actually the larger Family Court Enhancement Project. They're in the process of interviewing clients who have gone through the process with me. Cook County has a new grant from OVW through Justice for Families that I know came about built upon this program, but is leading to all sorts of other really fabulous things in Chicago connected with a new supervised visitation center that will be started at Loyola University, more judicial training, partnerships with Loyola Law School.
AMMENDOLA: I think what I have heard when we were able to gather as judges pre-pandemic, not everybody in Illinois has access to this program, or they're the smaller jurisdictions, they don't have a mediator, the challenge for some of the smaller jurisdictions would be sharing a mediator so that you have a mediator available to several counties perhaps, because I know some of the downstate people in Illinois, judges maybe are involvement in two counties versus one county.
ABBASI: Thank you both so much for joining us today. I think I can speak on behalf of our whole team in saying that we are excited to continue working with Cook County and to see what else you have in store in the future.
AMMENDOLA: Thank you for having us.
SENUTA: Thank you so much, Nida.