by Hon. David Suntag
A newly released report by the Vermont Center for Justice Research demonstrated that an innovative three year (September 2007 – September 2010) integrated domestic violence docket (IDVD) court program decreased criminal recidivism while also significantly decreasing time from arrest to case resolution. According to the data, IDVD criminal cases resolved three times more quickly than the statewide average. At the same time, IDVD participants recidivated 54% less often than domestic violence offenders statewide. For the full report go here.
Follow up analysis including process evaluation is being pursued. One area of particular interest concerns identifying the specific skills for judges to be successful in presiding over this type of non-traditional docket. Training needs for both judges and staff are being assessed with the goal of successfully replicating the program.
OVERVIEW OF IDVD PROJECT
After one year of planning and with minimal resources, the Bennington County, Vermont Integrated Domestic Violence Docket (IDVD) Project opened its doors at the beginning of September, 2007. The IDVD Project was developed to provide an immediate response to domestic violence events by coordinating Family and Criminal Division cases. The IDVD Project focused on: 1) protection and safety for victims and their children as well as other family members; 2) providing immediate access to community services and resources for victims, their children, and offenders to help overcome the impact of prior domestic abuse and prevent future abuse; and 3) providing an immediate and effective response to non-compliance with court orders by offenders.
The IDVD Project operated as a special docket within the Bennington County Criminal/Family Division Courts. The IDVD Project initially handled all criminal division misdemeanor offenses, some felony offenses, all felony and misdemeanor violation of probation cases, and Family Division abuse prevention order (protective order) cases involving domestic violence. The IDVD Project also integrated related Family Division child custody matters, juvenile matters and child/family support matters whenever possible. Dedicated to the idea of One Family, One Judge, the IDVD Project was designed to allow a single judge, one day each week, to have immediate access to all relevant information regardless of the traditional docket and to gather all appropriate players at the table regardless of any traditionally limited roles. For example, the State’s Attorney’s (prosecutors) and Public Defender’s roles were traditionally limited to criminal matters. Nevertheless, they attended and participated in the coordinated case resolution efforts taking place even during abuse prevention order hearings, matters traditionally considered not to be within the State’s Attorney’s or Public Defender’s authority.
By so integrating all DV related matters involving the same people, the IDVD Project was able to coordinate all court efforts toward the same goals of preventing further abuse and violence and overcoming the impact of prior abuse on the involved adults and their children. All orders were coordinated, case scheduling was expedited, and appropriate, comprehensive case resolution for all parties was the primary and immediate focus. The IDVD Project had as a goal to schedule hearings in the family’s related multiple cases, whether criminal or family, for the same time thus avoiding multiple trips to the court house for parties and witnesses. If there was non-compliance with any order, the program provided an immediate and effective response. If there was a need to modify any one order, the IDVD Project assured that all related orders, regardless of docket, were modified at the same time and remained consistent.
Of paramount importance to the IDVD Project was the court’s ability to provide the victim with immediate access to a free attorney who specialized in matters of domestic violence on behalf of victims. In addition, a separate victim advocate and additional victim advocacy services were available. The local domestic violence advocacy organization was directly involved in the creation and planning of the IDVD Project and was always available to assist victims of domestic violence with safety planning and support services before, during, and after court proceedings.
The IDVD Project was designed to quickly identify serious unmet needs for families in the court system and provide referrals to a comprehensive array of health and social services designed to meet the immediate and long-term needs of the family, including the victim, the offender, and their children. IDVD Project staff developed a relationship with community service providers and helped parties access those service providers on a court ordered or voluntary basis. The process involved a range of services including: arranging for free legal representation or advice; explaining court orders to self-represented parties or special needs parents who chose not to access legal services; making appointments for parents to immediately access supervised visitation or monitored exchange services; setting up prompt mental health, substance abuse or batterer’s education/counseling intakes and assessments resulting in prompt needs assessment reports to the court and all parties; providing all contact information for available service providers as well as actually making the service appointments for the family before they left the courthouse; negotiating with providers to obtain affordable services or available appointment times for the family, and/or follow-up calls and reports to advise the court and parties whether services were obtained; as well as other services as needed.
The IDVD Project sought to ensure offender accountability by relying on a comprehensive coordinated community response based on active participation of the court, criminal justice agencies, the community, and professional service providers to hold offenders accountable for their behavior. Within the context of the IDVD Project responses to non-compliance with court orders were swift, consistent, and proportionate to the violation and needs of the offender and victim. IDVD Project responses included: 1) immediate arrest for violation of any criminal or abuse prevention order; 2) additional appropriate criminal sanctions; and 3) referral to the batterers’ intervention program and/or other treatment or educational programs as appropriate. To ensure that offenders understood orders which were issued as well as their rights and responsibilities, public defenders provided assistance during the abuse prevention order process as well as the criminal process. In this manner, all parties had legal advice regardless of the type of case which initially brought those parties to the courthouse and regardless of their ability to hire counsel.
The IDVD Project, in conjunction with the Probation and Parole Office, created a specialized criminal probation warrant which helped facilitate more effective and close monitoring of the defendant’s compliance with court orders. This enabled swift action by the Court when dealing with violations of probation. Probation and Parole officers assertively enforced judicial orders and conditions of probation. The response was immediate and generally resulted in immediate arrest and incarceration until the first appearance on a violation of probation. At that time all parties then attempted to reach a prompt resolution best designed to assure future compliance.
COMMENTS FROM THE AUTHOR
It has been my privilege to have worked with so many dedicated professionals to develop and implement such an innovative court docket. While the process of development was time-consuming and at times frustrating, it was also exciting and rewarding. Personally, it was the culmination of years of research and thought arising from decades of work within a criminal and family court justice system that was often clearly ineffective in addressing the complex dynamics of domestic violence in our state. I think we made progress. Although our initial goal was simply to make the process more effective for even one victim, offender or child, the latest research shows that we may well have created a process that addresses recidivism on a greater level.
There is much yet to be done. What is clear is that judicial leadership and willingness to work outside the traditional judicial role without sacrificing fairness and due process is key to the success of any program like this. Developing a judicial education program that identifies willing and able judges and then teaches them the requisite skills will be crucial to any hope of expanding the program. Equally important will be identifying and teaching those skills needed for staff whose hands-on responsibilities so often make the difference between maintaining contact with the involved parties long enough to make a difference for them and their children or losing them again to the trauma of repeat abuse.
Hon. David Suntag has been a Vermont Superior Court trial judge since 1990. He developed and led the Bennington IDVD project from 2007-2010, Vermont’s first integrated domestic violence court project. He is also a faculty member for the National Judicial College and has presented judicial education programs on various topics including domestic violence since 2004.