Judges staying vigilant on domestic violence 

  • A screenshot of Thursday’s judges panel held over Zoom. STAFF PHOTO/MICHAEL CONNORS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/25/2020 7:57:38 PM

NORTHAMPTON — For Judge Maureen Walsh, the COVID-19 pandemic has made her “really fearful” of the safety of people dealing with domestic violence in their homes. The home is “even more of a vulnerable place than it ever has been,” she said, as people tend to stay home more often due to restricted or canceled activities.

“I fear for the people who don’t come to court, as well as the ones who come to court,” Walsh said. “For me, COVID strikes at the heart of domestic violence.”

Walsh was part of a group of state judges who convened Thursday afternoon for a virtual panel during which they fielded questions about court access for victims of intimate partner violence during the pandemic.

Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan posed submitted questions to the panel of judges, which included Walsh, who is first justice of the Northampton District Court; Judge Beth A. Crawford, first justice of the Franklin Probate and Family Court; Judge William F. Mazanec, III, first justice of the Greenfield District Court; Judge Bruce S. Melikian, first justice of the Eastern Hampshire District Court; and Judge David S. Ross, first justice of the Orange District Court.

The panel, which was held over Zoom, was organized the Northwestern district attorney’s office, which puts together a judges panel once a year.

With at least 100 people looking on, judges took the first question from Sullivan, who asked how the pandemic made it easier or harder for victims of domestic and sexual violence to seek court assistance. Crawford said she believed it has become much easier for people seeking an abuse prevention order, as they no longer have to physically appear in court.

According to a standing order from the district court, with some exceptions, hearings for emergency protection orders, such as abuse and harassment prevention orders, are done either virtually or by telephone, but any following two-party hearings are usually held in person.

“We have been doing pretty much all of them by video in our court. We’re operating mostly by video at this point,” Crawford said.

“Being able to have this access, especially on emergency hearings, I think, has been really helpful. And I’m hoping this is something we will be able to continue.”

The virtual hearings have led to technology challenges for some people, Mazanec said. But he also noted that the technology has been useful for victims who are giving impact statements in court, as they may feel safer since they are remote. Melikian also said remote hearings have helped victims who may not feel safe being in the same room with their abusers.

“I don’t plan on stopping the remote aspect of these hearings anytime soon, but I think it’s changed the way we do business, and I think it’s changed for the better,” Melikian said.

Walsh called the courthouse a “meeting place” where people who are dealing with domestic or sexual violence can come and get connected to resources, such as a SAFEPLAN advocate. She noted that there’s a connection that often grows between a person seeking resources and an advocate.

“We’ve lost a little bit of that by not being in person,” she said.

In regard to keeping these methods of virtual hearings post-pandemic, Walsh said the court has to “weigh and balance the ability to manage a courtroom, and to consider credibility … versus the absolute benefit of a victim or survivor feeling comfortable and safe.” She said defendants have been more likely to appear for telephone hearings than those that are in-person.

Crawford said that while there’s mixed feelings among judges within the probate and family courts about how successful the new technology has been, she said her court is thinking about ways they can handle civil cases remotely. She said that her court “prepared for an onslaught” of restraining orders coming into the court at the beginning of the pandemic, “and surprisingly we have not seen an increase in the numbers in our court.” She said people have been able to get protection orders quickly.

In the district court, Walsh said restraining order business has been close to what it was pre-pandemic. Otherwise, Walsh said there has been a drop in arrests. Restraining orders have been a priority for the district courts, she said, adding that some judges work after business hours to make sure these are available at all times.

Ross ran the numbers in Orange District Court, and said his court has dealt with 169 restraining orders this year compared to the 181 recorded in the same time period last year. Melikian said there was an initial increase in restraining orders in Eastern Hampshire District Court at the beginning of the pandemic, but that it has since returned to normal levels.

According to Ross, new judges receive specific and intensive training on domestic violence. This training is also available to judges who have been on the bench, and the pandemic has allowed for these programs to be conducted online.

Ross said it was important for judges to be aware of the disparities that exist in access to services, like mental health care, between minority populations and white people.

Mazanec said the pandemic has not affected his willingness to order people to participate in batterer’s intervention programs, as they are also being held virtually. Ross said that because there hasn’t been any jury sessions, cases haven’t been resolved, and therefore judges do not have the same opportunities to order people into these programs.

The judges also discussed the importance of having a SAFEPLAN advocate work with survivors who are seeking protection from abuse.


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