City opens domestic violence court

Legal, social services now in one facility

February 06, 2006|By LYNN ANDERSON | LYNN ANDERSON,SUN REPORTER

A domestic violence court has opened in Baltimore where battered women can take legal action against their abusers and find support services such as emergency housing and counseling.

The new court, the first of its kind in the city, is located at the Eastside District Court Building at 1400 E. North Ave. Before it opened, domestic violence victims filed civil complaints with the District Court Civil Division at 501 E. Fayette St. and traveled to the Eastside court, where criminal cases are processed. Now they can find legal services and social services under the same roof.

"We knew that if we had everything at one location, there would be better coordination," said Judge Ben C. Clyburn, chief judge of the District Court of Maryland, who started work on the project several years ago when he was in charge of the Eastside court.

Clyburn said he noticed troubling gaps in the way the legal system handled domestic violence cases while he worked at Eastside. In some situations, victims weren't getting the legal support they needed to pursue criminal charges against their abusers, he said. In others, they weren't receiving the counseling necessary to mend relationships if reconciliation was an option.

"The main focus is that when an individual is under the stress of abuse, they need to go somewhere that is safe," said Clyburn, who passed off the project to Judge Jeannie J. Hong, who took over from him as head of the Eastside court in 2004 when he was promoted to head the District Court system.

Hong, who also has experience handling domestic violence cases, worked with a team of advocates, prosecutors and law enforcement officials to create the integrated court, which could expand to include child welfare services.

A pilot program begun early last year at the Eastside court was so successful that officials quickly added more court services, Hong said.

The next step was finding funds to build an office for two House of Ruth attorneys who moved from the Fayette Street court and for renovating an office to accommodate a new court commissioner. In all, the construction work is expected to cost about $25,000, officials said.

Hong said the integrated court should help to increase offender accountability. Court officials will more easily be able to track compliance with court orders and crack down on violations, she said.

Hong said she expects the integrated court to result in more domestic violence convictions, which could help to cut down on overall violence.

"Look at how much violence stems from domestic violence," she said.

Officials at the House of Ruth, a nonprofit that works with victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, are pleased with the new setup, said Dorothy J. Lennig, director of the organization's domestic violence legal clinic.

"If you can provide more services to the victim, you have a better chance of her continuing through the system," Lennig said. "This way, we can walk a victim down the hall to the state's attorney's office and they can start to interview her immediately."

Access to a victim within the first few hours after an attack can be crucial for photographing injuries and establishing a personal connection with a woman who might otherwise disappear in an effort to escape an abusive spouse, said Videtta A. Brown, chief of the domestic violence division of the city state's attorney's office.

Brown recalled a recent case in which a victim who was referred to the state's attorney's office by the House of Ruth gave prosecutors important information about a 911 call. The call, a recording of which was played in court, led to a guilty finding.

"It was just beautiful," Brown said. "That's how this is supposed to work."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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