Every year, more than 3,500 people walk into Pinellas County courts and accuse a spouse or significant other of abuse.
Those people often attend civil hearings in which judges issue injunctions for protection against domestic violence. The judges frequently order the abusers to, among other things, receive counseling or undergo mental health evaluations.
Court officials, however, have long been without enough resources to oversee whether any of those conditions are followed.
That's about to change.
Thanks to a $300,000 grant and a year of planning, the Sixth Judicial Circuit will unveil a new civil domestic violence court next month. The special dockets will serve people who have made allegations of abuse against a spouse, family member or intimate partner.
People given orders by the judges will now be required to return to court to prove that they're complying with the conditions. The money allows the court to hire staff who can track the cases.
"That's the biggest piece," said Michelle Ardabily, chief deputy court administrator. "Prior to the launch we were having difficulty getting any kind of formal compliance review."
The grant, awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, also provides funding for a magistrate who will be at the courthouse on hearing days to immediately deal with issues such as child custody or visitation.
"Recognizing the impact that domestic violence has on relations — particularly on families and children — the DV court will provide the framework to better address the underlying issues," Circuit Judge Jack Helinger said in a press release.
The eight circuit judges who serve in the family law division will handle the cases on a rotation. The dockets will be heard in St. Petersburg on Wednesdays and in Clearwater on Thursdays.
As part of the program, members of CASA, the nonprofit organization Community Action Stops Abuse, will work from the clerk's office to support abuse victims as they seek protection orders.
The advocates will answer their questions, help them with necessary paperwork and direct them to needed shelters or services.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.