Court takes stand against domestic abuse

Published December 26 2012

For all the awareness of the danger Americans face from random violence, for many victims — young and old — the bigger threat is in their home. But the insidious nature of domestic violence makes it far harder to address. Now a low-cost court program being initiated in Pinellas County offers some hope for victims by better holding abusers to account.

It's been clear for decades that the courts are ill-equipped to deal with a crime that for many centuries wasn't recognized at all. Even as domestic violence crosses all social and economic boundaries, it is rarely a discrete, isolated act that can be simply addressed. In Pinellas County, only half of the roughly 3,500 people who seek emergency injunctions against their alleged abuser in a given year prevail in eventually securing a permanent one. And even for those who do, the court's ability to ensure the abuser meets the terms of that injunction is nearly nonexistent short of the victim reporting a breach — which could be another violent act.

That reality has all kinds of ramifications, from victims who walk away from seeking a permanent injunction because they fear it will only make their abuser angrier and spur a new attack, to providing no legal incentive for an abuser to actually take part in the counseling or drug treatment program that could change a family's trajectory.

Now with the help of a nearly $300,000 federal grant, the 6th Judicial Circuit starting next month will attempt a new strategy in Pinellas County. A new civil domestic violence court opens with a docket limited to allegations of abuse by a spouse, family member or intimate partner. The most significant change: Now when a judge hands down a permanent injunction, the abuser will have to return to the judge and prove compliance with the restraining order and any additional conditions — such as attending anger management sessions or substance abuse treatment. Two case managers, one fulltime and one parttime, will monitor the cases.

As part of the grant, the Pinellas County Commission has entered into a contract with CASA, a St. Petersburg-based nonprofit, to place victim's advocates in the Pinellas Clerk of Court office to assist victims seeking protection orders through the process.

Courts can't solve domestic violence on their own. It's a problem far too complex for that. But at least starting next month, Pinellas victims who go to court to seek protection won't feel like they're the only ones keeping tabs on their abuser.