Observing Restraining Order Hearings: Could a Dedicated Domestic Violence Court Do Any Better?

Candace C. McCoy, Rutgers University
Galma Jahic, Rutgers University

As part of a citizen's Courtwatch Program, we collected data from evey court hearing on domestic violence allegations in a local Family Court over a period of approximately a year. The hearings were on motions for temporary restraining orders against abusers, motions for permanent orders, motions to modify orders, and motions to dismiss. For each hearing, courtwatches recorded data about the judge and what was said at the hearing, the nature of the case and its evidence, the characteristics of the parties, and the outcomes. This paper describes the people and events that ended up in court. We found that allegations of domestic violence are considerably more varied than the prototypical cases between spouses. Judges generally treated petitioners fairly in determining what to do about incidents of violence, but they would not inquire into the issue of monetary support even though the law required it. Petitioners were mostly poor, and what they needed most was monetary support to enable them to escape the abusive environment. Furthermore, almost all the petitioners came to court alone. Police responded to domestic violence by telling victims to go to family court to get restraining orders, and those who did so were unsupported by police witnesses and unrepresented by attorneys. A high percentage had children, who accompanied them to court. If these cases were heard in a court specializing in domestic violence, would the outcomes have been any better? The data are matched to the model of an integrated domestic violence court. The conclusion is that some features of a specialized court, particularly access to social workers, monetary resources, and coordination with criminal court prosecutors, would improve the outcomes for these victims. However, providing lawyers or encouraging more police involvement would not.

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Updated 05/20/2006