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Making court process safer for women

More than 70,000 Maryland women become victims of domestic violence each year, but only a fraction of these women seek protective orders from our state's courts. If we want to do more to protect women, we need to make it easier and safer for them to get such orders.

Alarmingly, sometimes women actually put themselves at risk just by going to court. Consider the case of a Montgomery County resident whose estranged boyfriend had repeatedly beaten and threatened her. When this woman finished her court hearing and had received her protective order, she began walking to her car alone. To her horror, her ex-boyfriend and new girlfriend tried to run her down with his car. Another woman reported that her husband heatedly harassed and threatened her all the way to her car.

Women are not likely to come to court if they find the protective order process is baffling, insulting, or — as in the above cases — dangerous. For women to view the courts as a source of justice and protection, the entire court process needs to be safe, respectful and efficient. Orders need to be strong, and they need to be enforced.

That is why all who are concerned about domestic violence in Maryland should applaud a new set of guidelines issued last month by the state's chief judge of the district courts, Ben C. Clyburn, and the Administrative Judges Committee.

The administrative judges' guidelines steer the state's district courts toward a set of practices that would do much to protect women and encourage them to use the state's protective order system to ensure their safety. The actions recommended by the guidelines cost nothing, but if individual judges carry them out, these guidelines can protect women and even save lives.

•One of the most important recommendations is that all district courts adopt "staggered exit/victim first" procedures. This is a simple but crucial idea: Judges should require the accused abuser to remain in the courtroom for 15 minutes after the abuse victim has left the premises. If that had happened in the cases cited above, the women would not have been attacked as they left the courthouse. Many judges in the state do not regularly use this simple, potentially lifesaving technique consistently, although it should be standard procedure in every courthouse.

•The new guidelines also urge judges to ask respondents whether they understand that violating a protective order is a crime that can result in incarceration. Our organization's studies show this is often not stressed to abusers. In our second report, released June 4, judges in Montgomery County only told individual respondents 44 percent of the time — even though it could make a real difference in ensuring compliance with the order.

•The new guidelines ask judges to question the victim when she does not want to follow through on her order. Judges should ask whether she has been coerced or threatened in any way to drop the case, and whether she feels personally safe. In Montgomery County, district court judges asked victims if they were coerced only 37 percent of the time.

There is more in the new guidelines, including steps for judges to take to ensure all parties understand the proceedings, and reminders to tell respondents that they must turn in their firearms for the duration of their order. The one-page guidelines will be placed in each domestic violence file and to be available on the bench.

Some judges may protest that, with heavy dockets, they do not have time to implement the guidelines, but Court Watch Montgomery found that judges who utilize such best practices took no longer to complete their morning dockets than those who did not use "staggered exits" and other steps recommended in these guidelines.

Judge Clyburn and many of his colleagues in Maryland's courts deserve credit for their attention to the small details that can make a huge difference in whether women and men who are the victims of domestic violence stay safe — and sometimes whether they even stay alive. As we've seen in Montgomery County, much more needs to be done, but these new guidelines are an important step. Interested citizens can and should organize to assess how well their judges are putting these ideas into practice.

Laurie Duker is co-founder and executive director of Court Watch Montgomery, a nonprofit organization that seeks to reduce domestic violence by improving the court processes in Maryland that protect abuse victims and their children. Her email is

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