Report faults Montgomery courts on protective order hearings -- Gazette.Net







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A study released Thursday by a courts watchdog group advocates for reforms to how Montgomery County Circuit judges deal with victims of domestic violence seeking protective orders.

The report, released by Court Watch Montgomery, a local nonprofit, praised Montgomery County Circuit Court judges for being polite to those seeking orders, but noted that “many of the important national and state best practice standards ... are not common practice in our county’s higher court.”

“There are a lot of things that happen at court that aren’t safe for domestic violence victims,” said Laurie Duker, one of the nonprofit’s co-founders, in an interview.

One of the main findings of the report regarded “staggered exits,” meaning that when hearings for protective orders conclude, judges should order the person seeking a protective order be allowed to leave 15 minutes before the person they are seeking the order against.

In the last year, judges and sheriffs used staggered exits 65 percent of the time after the protective order hearings, but incorrectly or not at all in 35 percent of the orders, according to the report.

“We will have to sit down and meet and come up with a plan in unison to make sure [staggered exits] occurs through direction of judges on a higher level,” Montgomery County Sheriff Darren M. Popkin said.

The report also said that in 47 percent of the hearings the group monitored, judges failed to remind the subjects of protective orders that it is illegal to violate the orders.

The report also states that 55 percent of the time, judges don’t tell the subjects of the orders that they must turn in guns, if they own one.

Between July 2011 and June 2012, 12 people died in Montgomery County in domestic-violence-related deaths, according to the report.

In the past year, there has been one such homicide in the county, the recent death of Preeta Gabba, who police say was killed by her ex-husband and his new wife.

Court Watch Montgomery’s report is the third such report the watchdog group has issued. Previously, Court Watch Montgomery analyzed and made recommedations on how the county’s District Court judges handled protective orders.

Judge John W. Debelius III, the Circuit Court’s administrative judge, said he hadn’t read the whole report yet, but called it “constructive criticism,” and acknowledged several of Court Watch Montgomery’s findings.

“We’re happy to have their input,” he said, later adding, “We should probably make [our procedures] more uniform,” speaking of the report’s findings on staggered exits or when judges remind people being served protective orders that it is illegal to contact the people being served the order or that they must give up their guns.

“I think it’s a good idea for a judge to reiterate that,” he said.

The report also found that about 13 percent of people who initially sought protective orders asked that the orders later be dropped.

In 39 percent of those cases, judges failed to ask the petitioners if they had been coerced by their abuser or his or her friends.

It also argued for more pro bono lawyers and victim advocates to help represent domestic violence victims or to answer their questions.

The report also advocated for a video introduction before hearings that would explain the proceedings to both the victim and the subject of the order.

Finally, the report advocated for having information in bathrooms that would display hotlines for domestic violence victims, since “that is one of the few places where many domestic violence victims are allowed to go alone, free from being observed by their abuser.”