The news is filled with stories about a rise in domestic violence spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. This comes as courts reduce operations to abide by public health restrictions. Yet practitioners in courts across the U.S. are committed to responding to—and reducing the incidence of—domestic violence.
On this episode of In Practice, we hear from four of those practitioners, who discuss the challenges courts and communities are experiencing and how the justice system is adapting.
Our guests are:
- Robyn Mazur, director of Gender and Justice Initiatives at the Center for Court Innovation
- Carroll Kelly, administrative judge of the Domestic Violence Division of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida, Miami-Dade County. (Judge Kelly is also featured in our new video about the Miami-Dade County Domestic Violence Court)
- Kelly Greenough, chief judge of the Family Division in Tulsa County District Court
- Victoria Lowe, coordinator of Tulsa County’s domestic violence court
The following is a transcript of the podcast [Recorded 3/31/2020]
Rob Wolf: Welcome to In Practice, the podcast from the Center for Court Innovation where we talk with people on the front lines of the justice system. I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation.
The biggest challenge facing the justice system right now and everyone around the world today is COVID-19. Courts and other justice agencies, like so many places, have reduced operations to only essential services, and have tried to transfer as many functions to remote technology as possible. There have been a lot of stories in the mainstream media about how staying home—as so many millions of us are doing—can lead to higher incidences of domestic violence, which means potentially more of this particularly horrible crime at precisely a time when courts may be reducing, as a public health necessity, their ability to address it. And yet we know at the Center for Court Innovation that they want to address it.
So many in the justice system have dedicated their careers to improving responses to domestic violence, including my guests today. I'm going to start off this episode with one of my colleagues at the Center for Court Innovation and then we're going to be joined by some people from courts around the country including two judges. My colleague is Robyn Mazur. She's director of Gender [and] Justice Programs at the Center for Court Innovation. She's been working in the domestic violence field ever since she got her law degree. And for many years she's worked with practitioners around the United States, helping them strengthen community and system-wide responses to domestic violence.
Hi Robyn. Thanks for getting on the line with me.
Robyn Mazur: Thanks for having me.
RW: Your team has been hosting weekly drop-in calls with domestic violence court judges, their staffs and community stakeholders from across the country to talk about the challenges they are experiencing and some of the strategies they're starting to come up with as they adjust their responses to domestic violence in light of all the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell me about these call-ins, why you're holding them, and a little bit about what you've learned so far? I know this is a new thing you've been doing and the situation is evolving as we speak.
RM: Sure. Well, the Centers' gender and family justice team, we are constantly providing assistance and support, even before, obviously, this health crisis to courts and communities on issues around domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking. And as part of that ongoing work, we have always seen the importance of peer-to-peer support and mentorship and training. And so, it was really natural for us a team to start these drop-in calls that are now weekly with courts and court staff. So, that includes judges and all different types of court staff, including coordinators of some of these domestic violence courts, for example, and their community stakeholders, to talk about the challenges that they're facing.
RW: In other words, they're getting to learn from each other as they kind of go through this together. But they're all in different jurisdictions, I presume with different resources and different kinds of technology, that sort of thing?
RM: Absolutely. Prior to this crisis that's always been one of the issues: every community is unique and they're bringing their individual laws that they have and different resources. And obviously in this crisis that remains the same.
RW: And I don't know if you could give a general overall sense of some of the things you're hearing.
RM: I think unfortunately, in all different types of communities, from smaller communities to the largest communities, people are really stressed and concerned, particularly in this area as you described earlier, on domestic violence cases. Where we know that these are emergencies and people need to access the court systems. And how they can do that right now is unclear.
RM: But we're hearing also real innovation and ingenuity and people pulling together and a lot of communities going and talking to a wide variety of stakeholders to make sure that their systems are still talking, that people in the community understand how they still can access their courts for help. As much as it's been really hard to listen to what's happening and how the court are really stretched and stressed right now, there is a sense that people are pulling together and doing everything they can to make their communities safer, particularly for domestic violence victims.
RW: Now we're going to talk to practitioners from two jurisdictions who've participated in these drop-in calls. Judge Carroll Kelly is the administrative judge of Domestic Violence Division of the 11th Traditional Circuit of Florida in Miami Dade County, Judge Kelly Greenough is the chief judge of the family division in Tulsa County district court in Oklahoma. And she currently also presides over the felony domestic violence docket and Tulsa County district court. And we're also going to be speaking with Victoria Lowe, who is the domestic violence court coordinator in Tulsa County. So thank you all so much for joining Robyn and me today to talk about your responses and the impact of COVID-19 in your jurisdictions.
Carroll Kelly: Thank you, Rob.
RW: Judge Greenough and Judge Kelly preside over domestic violence courts, but in very different communities. Why don't you tell our listeners a bit about your communities and the courts and then we can get into the challenges that you've had to confront in the last few weeks because of COVID-19. So Judge Greenough, if you want to go first?
Kelly Greenough: I'd be glad to. And thanks for having us today. Tulsa County sits in the northeastern quadrant of the state of Oklahoma. Our particular court is the 14th judicial district, which is made up of Tulsa and Pawnee counties. We have six district judges who preside over felony dockets, and a handful of magistrates who preside over both family courts and misdemeanors. Our coordinated domestic violence court works in both of those divisions, providing services on felony dockets, misdemeanor dockets and protective order dockets as well.
We have about, I think our last census report was about three quarters of a million people.
RW: And Judge Kelly, why don't you tell us a little bit about your court.
CK: Thanks Rob. So, Miami Dade County is comprised of approximately 3.6 million residents.
RW: And your domestic violence division, tell me a little bit about that.
CK: Our domestic violence division is a combined civil and criminal domestic violence division. We have 14 judges that operate out of five different courthouses that hear our civil injunction calendars.
RW: So, let's now talk about COVID-19. You're both situated in very different jurisdictions, Judge Greenough, in a medium size city and Judge Kelly in a larger city where there's a lot going on. But in both cases, you have fully developed court systems that have been responding to domestic violence for many years. But tell me what COVID-19 and the responses that your courts have had to take to safeguard the community follow best public health practices. Like what has been happening to you and your staff? And maybe we should just start with how you're coping right now personally, because I know this is having a big effect on people personally, and especially people like yourselves in the justice system that's under a lot of pressure right now. So maybe Judge Greenough, do you want to share a little bit about your experience?
KG: Sure. I would say we have had sort of what I would call a graduated process. Currently, our Oklahoma Supreme court issued an order last Friday shutting down all 77 County courts. Before last Friday, we were operating under an administrative order that came out, I think the 17th of March, that limited court processes, but stops short of closing the courts Currently, the public is not allowed in our building. We are continuing pursuant to their order, certainly processes which would include a bond docket for folks who are arrested, continuing the emergency protective order process, which we have a very refined process that we're using right now. We are also continuing to handle emergency child custody matters in our family courts. It's been somewhat stressful and trying to get the word out to our community.
We've done the best we can. Our newspaper has helped for those that continue to get the paper, social media through the county and the courts. Of course, the court's website has certain points of contact on there for folks that might need assistance in any one of those areas. But in times of distress like this, we all know that family dynamics can be negatively affected and the need for protective orders and or emergency child custody matters can go up. And so, we're certainly seeing continued need for those services.
RW: And are you doing those hearings in person for these emergency orders or are you doing them virtually?
KG: Well, with regard to our protective order process specifically, our jurisdiction is fortunate that we have had a statute in place since 1982 for emergency protective orders to be handled remotely when our building is closed.// obtain what we call an afterhours protective order. // It allows certain categories of people who would be seeking a protective order to contact our local police and the police then facilitate getting an emergency protective order.
They contact our protective order judge or the judge of the day that's on call and they are largely handled over the phone that way until the building reopened. So, we've been fortunate to have that statute in place for a while and that's what we're using for our emergency protective orders currently.
RW: So in other words, you're using the after-hours process at all hours now, is that how you have adapted?
KG: We are, yes, we are. Because, the public cannot come into our building. We do have our protective order judge who has been in the building, my understanding most days. And he's dealing with and processing the continuing hearings and continuing those out 30 or 60 days. But the emergency protective order process that we are currently using, is our after hours process that's authorized by statute.
In terms of child custody issues, those are being handled by each of our judges in the family division, either on the pleadings being submitted via email or through either phone conference or Zoom conference.
RW: And Judge Kelly, tell us about what's going on in Miami.
CK: Well, the Florida Supreme court issued an administrative order that’s in effect until April 17th which suspended the grand jury, jury proceedings, criminal and civil jury trials.
in terms of our domestic violence division, we still do have petitioners physically coming to our courthouse. Our clerks have re-arranged the intake center to mandate that their social distancing between the citizens coming in to seek the restraining order and the clerk. They're also trying to utilize phones, so they'll get the petitioner's phone number and try to do most of the interview over the phone and then have the petitioner come back to receive the paperwork.
So, we're struggling. It's difficult. There's no doubt about it. There's people that are having their cases reset, they're feeling they're not getting access to the court. And we understand all of that. So, we're trying to constantly balance the rights of individuals and access to justice and due process versus the rights of individuals to stay healthy. And it's causing stress throughout our court system for sure. People don't want to go to court, the workers don't want to go to court. Our administrative order from our court is mandating that we do not go to court. And so, there's tension because some people are going to court based on the mandates of what cases must be continued to be heard.
RW: As Judge Greenough pointed out, this is a time where family stress can be even higher and presumably being in a quarantine can create conditions that foster more domestic violence and maybe even foster isolation. Are you worried about that and have you at least, have you anecdotally been able to see if in fact there has been more domestic violence or if people are finding it difficult, whether because of quarantine or because of these conditions that you need to set up with remote hearings and such? Are there obstacles for people to access justice?
KG: I liked what Judge Kelly had to say about the balancing that we're constantly doing right now because there's no better visual that I could think of for this particular situation in terms of balancing all of the interests that she talked about. But we do know anecdotally here from our police and our protective order courts that a large number of calls for service relate to domestic violence issues and or requests for protective orders. I think since our court went to this particular process, we've had somewhere between 40 and 50 emergency protective orders issued. And I'm hearing at least anecdotally that percentage wise, a larger number of the arrests are for domestic violence-related offenses right now. That's again, anecdotal. I don't get any daily report of that in traditional times and certainly not under these circumstances.
RW: And in Miami, Judge Kelly?
CK: Well in Miami, I get a daily report regarding the individuals that are going into each courthouse to seek temporary restraining orders and our numbers are down, significantly down since the COVID-19 really became well known in the community, and some of the orders started coming out. So, we understand that domestic violence is still occurring and it is of course a concern. Why are the people not coming to court to seek the protective orders? We have done, I think a really good job of letting everybody know that the courthouse is still open. But then when you think about it practically, who really wants to have to go out in public, perhaps take public transportation and expose themselves and their children to come to a courthouse where again, they'd have to expose themselves and their children. And then, even if they receive a restraining order and it would be a spouse or a family member to have that person basically be thrown out of the house when there was effectively no place for people to go, when they're thrown out of the house.
The system itself and the circumstances right now I think are particularly challenging for victims who are experiencing domestic violence from both a personal safety standpoint regarding COVID-19 for themselves, for their children, and for their spouses and loved ones that may be the individuals that are perpetuating the domestic violence.
RW: And we've been talking largely about the emergency orders and the emergency situations, but of course you have an existing caseload of litigants who have existing orders of protection, who perhaps some of them are in batter intervention programs. What's going on with your ongoing caseloads as far as monitoring or the continuation of these programs that people are sometimes mandated to participate in. Judge Greenough?
KG: Certainly. In terms of continuing protection orders, what's happening in our jurisdiction is that our protective order judge is automatically extending them. Our Supreme Court order sounded very much like what has come out in Florida. But it also extends virtually everything including statutes of limitation, any types of proceedings. It extends everything. The first order extended it by 30 days, and I believe that was through up to April 20. Last Friday's order, extended everything until May 15th.
In terms of the batter intervention, Victoria Lowe, our court coordinator probably has a better read on what our providers are doing to keep things going or not.
RW: Victoria, do you want to tell us about what the batter intervention programs are doing in Tulsa and how and if you're able to monitor compliance?
VL: Yeah, absolutely. So, what I did first is I reached out to all of our batterer intervention program providers. We have four in Tulsa who are approved by our Oklahoma Attorney General's office. I reached out to our pretrial officers who have folks on electronic monitoring and our probation supervision officers. I got a general update from each of them about how their programs are running, if they're working remotely. If they have online classes, how they're supervising individuals, collected that information and shared it with our whole team
We moved all of our review docket hearings or settings to our future dates in June and July based off of their compliance. We put together a weekly domestic violence team call with prosecution, probation, pretrial and victim advocates. Our preliminary hearing judge has moved to passing batterers intervention program orders 90 days. So usually, they had 14 days to sign up for a program, but now they have 90 days and they're scheduling their first date in June. And then we continue to monitor all of the cases that are being filed each week, so that we can identify who is eligible for our specialized domestic violence courts, as well as identifying any of the high-risk cases that need to be referred over to our rapid intervention team.
And what we found to be particularly helpful is that the Center for Court Innovation has been putting together calls or linking us to different trainings. And we've been just sharing ideas and information on how we can continue to monitor the offenders who are currently on our caseload.
RW: That's great. I see Robyn, you're doing good work with those phone calls.
RM: And Judge Kelly, what's going on with your ongoing caseloads as far as monitoring or participating in a batter intervention program?
CK: Well basically, everything's still open for business. We too are keeping in close communication with our community partners. We've done that pretty much individually for the most part to check on everybody's needs. But this Friday we're going to be having a countywide Zoom meeting. But our probation and our batterers intervention programs operate the same. They're having rotating schedules to reduce staff.
They are continuing to have community corrections staff do remote work and provide virtual services. The probation still have to report face to face, but they're using Zoom. And there's increased outreach by probation officers to call both the diversion and the batterers intervention programs, and the clients to make sure that they're continued to be engaged, connected, and violence free. Really most of our interventions have transitioned to a virtual environment. But the clients have overwhelmingly really reported positively to this new experience, particularly in light of the fact that many would have problems with transportation during this time. So, it hasn't seemed to be as much of a barrier, if we were afraid it may be.
I think it was understood that this would be a time that many people might feel they had no supervision, and that would lead to some very serious consequences. So, we've tried to actually step it up and let them know that we are here and we are here to help and we are watching.
RW: The last thing I wanted to ask you about is the coordinated community response. Victoria, could you just kind of explain what that is, and why it's so important and how it's working now given the changes that you're dealing with at the moment?
VL: Absolutely. So we have a lot of partners who come together to ensure that we're really holding offenders accountable and maintaining victim safety, especially during this time where everyone is home. It's very, as the judges had mentioned, stressful potentially dangerous. And so, we have been really partnering with our family justice center, which is our family safety center. As well as our typical batterers intervention program providers, our victim advocates through the domestic violence intervention services.
But beyond that, we're even coordinating with family and children's services to ensure that folks are being referred for drug and alcohol assessments or mental health evaluations. And so, we have done different things. We're right now working with court certified interpreters to translate a lot of the documents so that our community has more access to understand what our teams are doing within our domestic violence court. And we are also making sure that we utilize face-to-face systems like Zoom that Judge Kelly had mentioned, and working towards maintaining as much of our program as possible.
RW: And Judge Kelly, tell us about your coordinated community response. I was in Miami almost a year ago working on a video about your court, and I remember being in a room at a university that was just filled with people, Are you able to communicate with all of those many partners? You did mention something about a big Zoom meeting.
CK: Yes. Well, so I've been sending out updates to our community partners every four, five days to let them know what's going on in terms of the court and to ensure that everybody knew that the court was still open for domestic violence petitioners and also for first appearance hearings on the domestic violence side.
We all have each other's phone numbers and names. We're on a large group listserv that we sent out, and we're up to about 120 community partners. So I think everybody's really interested in and what we're doing, and we're all interested to share what services we can offer. What are challenges right now and how we can help each other. And for those people that don't have a coordinated community response, it's the perfect time to establish one because it's needed more than ever. And I think judicial leadership right now in terms of helping to coordinate the services and what's happening in the community, is vital at this time.
RW: Well, that's some great advice. And Robyn, was there anything you would like to ask that we have not asked that you think we should cover?
RM: I was just going to ask specifically about, your victim advocate outreach and other information that you may be hearing we talked a lot about our community partners, batterers intervention and other kinds of accountability and compliance components. But I just wanted to ask specifically if you had any other information around victim safety.
CK: Pursuant to not only the statewide order but the local order. We're at a shelter at home order. So nobody is allowed to go out. So, all of the victim advocacy services are being done either telephonically or remotely at this time. And in fact, we were meeting all day today because we'll be up and operational remotely by the middle of next week and our victim advocates will be able to come in on all of our cases and be part of our Zoom meeting and be able to break out with all litigants, all petitioners through our Zoom hearings to have private confidential meetings with them on the Zoom platform and the breakout session.
So we're excited about that because I think even the court's going to help to be able to facilitate some of this one-on-one counseling and advocacy that otherwise may not be available at this time.
RM: Judge is that for your order of protection hearings, the civil orders of protection? Is that what you're referring to?
CK: Yeah, on our civil side, we are going to be up and operational /remotely. We're starting to set our compliance calendars down so that we can get a handle on who's complying and who's not. And start to take action and beef up oversight on those people that have not been complying with our batterer's intervention or probation terms. And so, we're adding the calendars all back and this is on the civil side.
On the criminal side, what we're hoping to do is to again, set up a Zoom-type of platform to handle parts of our criminal cases, whether it be just arraignments or other parts of our criminal cases in addition to the first appearance remotely. And in Miami, unfortunately we're on the upswing right now. Every day we look at the news, there's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of more cases. So, we're really cognizant of the health issues as well.
Maybe we can encourage more supreme courts to allow, and to facilitate and to get the technology for their judges to operate a little bit more than we are now and helping people that really need it in crisis situation.
RM: I think access to justice is even more at the forefront right now, obviously. Right? And so while the legal system has not always been quick to embrace some of these virtual platforms, I think what you're saying is right now court systems really need to do that, to enable people to get access to justice, but while still maintaining public health.
CK: Yeah. I really think that this is going to really help our citizens, really like you're saying, have access to justice. Certainly it's not the same as face to face. It's not going to be perfect and it's not even going to be close to perfect, but it is definitely going to fill a huge gaping hole in access to justice that I don't see any other way in light of COVID-19 that we're going to be able to fill other than using platforms such as Zoom.
And so we were... And I'm saying we collectively, the judges that have been practicing this, were pleasantly surprised by, what we hope we're going to be able to do next week when we invite people into court. I'll be in my living room; I'll have the logo behind me as my virtual background. I'll have my robe on, and I'll start hearing emergency motions and be able to help people. And I think the more courts can do that, the better it's going to be, because who knows how long this is going to go on.
KG: I had a thought over the last few days as well, to Judge Kelly's point, that I think it would be a really intelligent exercise some months down the road, when we're all hopefully looking back at this particular event in our history, to try and capture some of the things that developed as best practices during this time. It occurred to me that courts are typically reactive in nature. We address problems that are brought to our courthouse steps literally by our citizens in our communities.
But what we haven't done a lot of that I can tell anyway, is to think about how we would handle work remotely. Like we're having to process right now, but COVID-19 is not the only scenario in which these lessons could be important. Oklahoma is part of Tornado Alley as most people know. But there are certainly other areas like Florida where you all are dealing with hurricanes. So certain weather-related events, whether a courthouse took a direct hit from a tornado, or a hurricane or whether there was a fire.
But some other type of emergency conditions where these processes could then be immediately looked to, as best practices in how we handle our work, on an ongoing basis when we are confronted by emergencies.
CK: You nailed it on the head. I mean we were not ready for this, and we know there is going to be things in the future, and they even talk about COVID-19 coming back in the fall, assuming we get through it in the next few months. And there's going to be obviously other disasters. So this is forcing the hand of the slow-moving courts to embrace technology, and to be able to use it in a way to serve the citizens.
RW: Excellent. Okay. Well I think we have covered a lot of ground, and I want to thank you all for participating today.
We hope you all stay safe and appreciate all the hard work you're doing on this very important, crucial, crucial issue. I have been speaking with Judge Carroll Kelly of Miami Dade County. She's the administrative judge of the Domestic Violence Division of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit. And also Kelly Greenough, who is the chief judge of the Family Division in Tulsa County District Court. As well as Victoria Lowe, the DV court coordinator in Tulsa County.
And also with me has been Robyn Mazur, who is the Director of our Gender and Justice Initiatives at the Center for Court Innovation. And I am Rob Wolf, Director of Communications at the Center for Court Innovation.
This project was supported by Grant No. 2015-TA-AX-K023 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.