BY JAMES FARRELL
Even as violent crime in New York City has been on a steady decline since 1990, domestic violence continues to rise in steady numbers. In 2007, 4.8 percent of all major crimes in the city were related to domestic violence. By 2016, that number had risen to 11.6 percent, according to a report by the New York City Domestic Violence Task Force.
For Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest), who is chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services, the issue raises questions about the city’s efficacy in handling domestic violence cases in the court system.
“Every act of domestic violence ripples out to affect our city—it leads to homelessness, health problems and hospital visits, police interventions, lost jobs or missed time, not to mention its effect on children’s wellbeing and education,” Lancman said at a Sept. 18 committee hearing on New York’s domestic violence courts. “How our city manages legal proceedings associated with domestic violence plays a major role in determining the services victims receive and how we are able to hold perpetrators accountable.”
New York State has created two different types of courts that are specialized in dealing with domestic violence issues. The domestic violence (“DV”) courts specialize in adjudicating criminal offenses related to domestic violence situations, while the Integrated Domestic Violence Courts (“IDV”) consolidate the various issues surrounding a domestic violence case under the jurisdiction of a single, specialized judge.
The IDV courts follow an innovative “one family, one judge model” that allows a single judge to follow a family through every step of its legal process—from the criminal proceedings to matrimonial proceedings through the family court.
In theory, the IDV system is meant to cut back on bureaucracy. Prior to the system’s implementation in 2001, families would have to navigate several different courts and judges in order to handle their domestic violence cases. Certain elements of the case would be handled in a criminal court, while others might be handled in a separate family court. As families await hearings for one part of the legal process, decisions in another court may be stalled, and judges from each individual court may take on a case, unfamiliar with its history or the individuals involved. Additionally, these specially trained judges are able to coordinate with victim advocates and other community-based social services agencies to give specialized services to victims.
“We’re interested in seeing whether the model of consolidating domestic violence victims into one court is an effective model,” Lancman told the Queens Tribune. “Our impression, especially from our hearing, is that these courts do a good job of holistically solving a family’s problems.”
The Queens Tribune recently joined Lancman for a visit to the Queens Criminal Court to sit in during a number of IDV hearings. Lancman was hoping to see the benefits of the system and determine where the council might be able to provide more resources.
The hearings were overseen by Judge Elisa Koenderman. In the first hearing, the accused party faced the judge to discuss criminal charges—particularly, a full order of protection that was issued against the defendant. Immediately afterward, a family court hearing commenced, during which the two parties—the accused abuser and victim—met to discuss visitations and custody with the child, which involved navigating around some of the stipulations of the order of protection.
For Lancman, the case illustrated how the IDV courts can play a beneficial role. Normally, discussions on visitations and custody might be held up by pending criminal court dates as a separate judge works through the defendant’s criminal charges and any potential orders of protection.
“If they were just in family court, the court would say, ‘Oh well, there’s an order of protection in criminal court,’” Lancman said. “They would have to come back here to modify it.”
That means more court dates, days taken off work and money for lawyers.
“The criminal court order of protection had to be tailored to the family court case circumstance, and [in the IDV courts] that was able to be done in one court at one time,” Lancman said.
Perhaps the most glaring need, however, is resources provided to the courts for the services they provide.
And there’s a particular shortage of funds for supervised visitations—or visits between a potentially high-risk parent or guardian that are supervised in a safe environment.
At the City Council hearing, however, advocates testified that the IDV courts are often short on resources—especially for services. Judge Esther Morgenstern, the presiding judge of the Kings County IDV Court, testified that there is a “real lacking” of supervised visitation services.
“At the end of the case, two years have gone by, the criminal cases have resolved, and matrimonial have resolved, the children, we still want them to reconnect with the non-custodial parent,” Morgenstern told the committee. “Very often, I sign 722C orders, which allow the courts to use city and state funds to have those visitations occur, but there’s a real need for additional funds to supervised visitations.”
In the second court hearing at the Queens Criminal Court, the issue of supervised visitations came up as the family had been using an advocacy group that provides such visitations for families with children who are affected by domestic violence. The mother of the child was forced to take off from work since supervised visitations were only taking place during work hours.
The lack of supervised visitations is a problem in courts across the board, Lancman said, but presents specific issues for the IDV cases, which typically deal with criminal situations.
“It’s a particular problem in the IDV court,” Lancman said. “With an underlying criminal case, it’s much more likely that visitation will be delivered upon supervision.”
Leah Scondotto, director of the Brooklyn Family Court program at the group Safe Horizon, which provides supervised visitations, talked to the Queens Tribune about the need of resources for the service. Funding, she said, comes from the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, but it’s limited.
“We have one full-time employee that handles the program with my support,” Scondotto said. “And it’s the same in Queens and it’s the same in the Bronx. We have one person handling these cases—so, of course, that limits the amount of cases we can take.”
Additionally, less resources makes it harder to create visitation times during the weekends or after work hours.
For Sharisse Diaz-Johnson, who went through the IDV court system in Brooklyn, funding more services would be worthwhile. The system gave her access to all the services that she needed and allowed her case to be handled expeditiously.
“It was like one-stop shopping, which was very helpful,” she said. “Instead of me going through each and every function in the courts, they did everything in one place.”
More resources may be coming. On Oct. 23, New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray announced an initiative known as Create Safe Families NYC, which would provide a network of free supervised visitation resources in each borough. The specifics of that program are yet to be seen.
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.