CLEARWATER — Pinellas County has received nearly $300,000 in federal grant funding to establish a civil domestic violence court.
The county accepted the award from the U.S. Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women this month. Chief deputy court administrator Michelle Ardabily said the court applied for the grant in response to concerns raised by local advocates for domestic violence victims.
"They had concerns about a lack of a holistic approach to the issue," she said.
An advisory committee will spend 2012 identifying gaps in the system and considering new practices, with implementation in January 2013, Ardabily said.
Circuit Judge Peter Ramsberger, who is currently the family administrative judge, will chair the committee and work closely with Judge John "Jack" Helinger, who takes over the administrative post Jan. 1, Ardabily said. The two judges and Ardabily traveled last week to Louisville, Ky., for training and a court site visit.
Local advocates, who will help with planning and be collaborative partners in the new model, said the project can streamline cases and make sure batterers are meeting requirements.
"We are thrilled," said Linda A. Osmundson, executive director of the local nonprofit CASA, or Community Action Stops Abuse. "We just keep thinking if we go at it from a different direction, we'll get more cooperation and understanding and, ultimately, the bottom line is safety for the women in our community."
In 2010, 3,439 people in Pinellas — an average of about nine a day — filed petitions for restraining orders against their spouses or domestic partners, Ardabily said. Another 298 in dating relationships filed for restraining orders.
Studies place the percentage of cases in which a man is the abuser and a woman is the victim at between 85 and 98 percent, said Courtney Hendrickson, outreach manager for the Haven of RCS domestic violence shelter in Clearwater.
One of the primary problems advocates cite is abusers' lack of compliance with requirements set by the court, such as substance abuse assessments or anger management classes.
"They're just not being held accountable for their actions, so that's a big frustration for the victims," Hendrickson said.
To deal with those issues, organizers are planning a regularly scheduled compliance docket where judges can check in to make sure defendants are completing requirements.
Repeat violence cases — those between parties who are not related to or in a relationship with one another, like ongoing neighbor disputes — will be handled under a separate docket rather than being lumped in with domestic violence.
"By doing so, we will be able to give more emphasis to the domestic violence — the intimate, the dating — and the sexual cases," Helinger said.
Stakeholders say they also would like to see an increase in the number of abusers required to take batterer intervention programs, which are 26-week group counseling sessions led by certified facilitators.
"Most are being ordered into eight-hour anger management courses instead. Domestic violence may seem like it's a product of anger, but actually it's a product of power and control issues. Therefore, we feel that anger management is not the right place for a batterer," said RCS development director Lisa Matzner.
As part of the grant funding, judges and some court staff will get extra training in domestic violence issues, a step advocates say they hope will result in more abusers being ordered to attend batterer intervention programs.
Part of the funding will pay for the appointment of a general magistrate who will assist with related family law cases and issues — like divorce, child custody and visitation — on the same day, and at the same courthouse where an injunction is issued. The process should cut down on trips to the courthouse and resolve parenting issues more quickly.
Advocates say that will help victims struggling with transportation and child care issues, and will limit the time they're forced into the same place as their abuser. But Hendrickson said she does worry about that component, because men are more likely to be able to afford attorneys, which could stack the deck against women in custody matters.
The grant will also fund the appointment of a part-time judicial advocate to help victims navigate the legal system and give service referrals, and one and a half case manager positions to keep track of compliance and compile info on other, concurrent family law cases to refer to the general magistrate.
Helinger said he was especially pleased about the increased communication and coordination on injunction hearings and other cases.
"This grant, with the additional personnel, will allow us to do considerably better on that, which we all think is extremely important," he said.
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.