An Outsider’s Observations on Domestic Violence Hearings in Family Court

Hello, readers! My name is Alec Joyner. I am an undergraduate at Yale University, and this summer I’m interning at the Mary Byron Project. I’ve already made one post on this blog (“Disputing ‘Dispute’”), and I will continue to post here throughout the summer. I’m especially interested in the influence of the media on how the issue of domestic violence is perceived and understood by the public, and I will probably continue to focus on the media in future posts.

For today, though, I want to report and reflect on what I’ve learned so far about the adjudication of domestic violence cases in family court. At Yale, I work as a peer educator on issues of sexual communication and culture and especially sexual misconduct (you can see info on our program here), but I didn’t come into this internship with extensive knowledge about domestic violence, and I’m learning quite a bit on the job. Legal procedures, in particular, were an area of relative ignorance for me before I arrived in Kentucky. In the last three weeks, though, I’ve learned a great deal. I’ve benefited from extensive instruction and conversation within the Mary Byron Project office, I’ve read about DV issues online and in books such as Next Time She’ll be Dead by Ann Jones, I’ve visited Louisville’s Domestic Violence Intake Center, and—the educational activity most directly relevant to this post—I’ve observed DV-related hearings in a local family court.

My overall impression of the court procedure in civil domestic violence cases, so far, is a kind of mild amazement at just how many variables there are that the letter of the law can’t adequately address. What follows here is a list of more specific thoughts and observations:

  • First and foremost, it has become exceedingly clear that there is an incredible amount of room for variation among judges: variation in their procedural conduct in court, in their underlying philosophy and knowledge of the dynamics of domestic violence, and in the percentage of cases in which they rule in favor of the petitioner. Each judge can decide whether or not he or she wishes to read a petitioner’s affidavit out loud and ask whether or not the petitioner would like to accept it as part of his or her sworn testimony. Each judge can decide whether or not to explain the reasoning behind decisions, the exact terms of orders, the consequences of the orders being violated, and future options and suggestions for what the petitioner (and respondent) could do if various eventualities were to arise. I now appreciate the importance of clarity in writing and explaining protective orders; without clarity (and, of course, without proper enforcement), protective orders would carry little weight. Judges can also vary in their reasoning. For example, some might embrace the argument that the petitioner would have no reason to come to court unless his or her complaint was well-founded—that is, if he or she had not been abused at least on the level of fear and/or intimidation, he or she presumably wouldn’t want to go through the trouble, embarrassment, and psychological turmoil of taking legal action against someone he or she, at one time or another, loved and cared for. Others might reject such an argument, especially in cases where a petitioner seems to have something to gain in terms of divorce, property, or custody settlements.
  • It didn’t take long for me to recognize that victims of domestic violence often have mixed feelings, and changing feelings, about their situation, and that between the filing of a petition and the petitioner’s court hearing (a period often coinciding with the duration of an emergency order), any number of people and factors can bring about a change in the petitioner’s point of view. The first petitioner heard in the family court I was observing, for example, had decided (for whatever reason), since writing her petition, that she wanted to continue living with the respondent. She asked that, instead of the no-contact order she had originally requested, the judge write a no-unlawful-contact order. Another woman had had a previous order lifted because her minister had told her, “The first five years of marriage are supposed to be hard.” A third woman came in requesting the lifting of a no-unlawful-contact order she had in place against her husband. The judge read the record of the original hearing, which established that the couple were in a marriage forcibly arranged by the woman’s parents, and also that the husband had repeatedly beaten and sexually abused the wife. It was fairly obvious that the woman did not actually want the order lifted at all; instead, she seemed to have come in only by the coercion of either her parents or her husband, or both. The judge dismissed “her” request and let the order stand. She seemed relieved.
  • Perhaps the most interesting pattern I noticed in court was that the respondents, for the most part, did not deny specific allegations. They instead took two other primary approaches to their own defense. The first was blanket denial of all of the petitioner’s testimony, as in the following sample exchange. Respondent: “None of what she says is true.” Judge: “Were you in prison until three months ago?” Respondent: “Yeah.” Judge: “So that part was true.” Respondent: “Well yeah, but I have never, ever hurt her.” The second common tactic respondents used in defending themselves was to frame their actions, which they often freely admitted to, as harmless, reasonable, unobjectionable, or well-intentioned—natural parts of an equitable relationship that “has its ups and downs.” For example, one man (who, if I remember correctly, was not denying that he threatened to kill his wife) described how he and his wife both occasionally say things to try to make the other feel bad. Another man, being questioned about the violation of an order already in place, explained that he had heard the woman was going through a rough patch, and that his repeated attempts to contact her were for purposes of offering emotional support. In the few cases where a respondent specifically contradicted details of the petitioner’s testimony or offered an alternate version of specific events, their accounts were uniformly more vague and incomplete than the petitioners’. They also frequently said “I don’t recall [x or y] happening” instead of saying “[x or y] did not happen.” This pattern of revisionism, denial, pathology, etc. is only encouraging in that it seems to indicate that psychological treatment or therapy might be very effective for many perpetrators.
  • One of the cases I saw was between a mother and her adult daughter, who lived with her and had been hounding her for money and prescription drugs to fuel multiple addictions. The judge explained to me after they left the courtroom that parent-child or grandparent-grandchild cases make up probably slightly less than 10% of the DV cases he sees, and that in 99% of such cases, the situation is exactly what it was in that one: a filing against an addict. The first figure was not that surprising to me, but the second one definitely was, if only because I can imagine any number of abusive situations that would not directly involve drugs or alcohol.
  • From what I could tell from the cases I saw, the line between what should go to family court for a protective order and what should go to criminal court so that a perpetrator might be sentenced to jail time is rarely clear. In one case, the judge I was observing made some sort of distinction between a one-time offense that would be grounds for a protective order and ongoing behavior that would constitute a criminal offense, but the distinction was not at all clear to me.

As these thoughts and observations reflect, I’ve learned a great deal, but I also have a great many questions. For example, I would like to learn more about the roles, broadly speaking, that cultural background, ethnicity, and religious belief are known to play in domestic violence cases, and how such variables tend to influence legal decisions. I would also like to learn more about what standardized education, if any, judges and court officials are given on domestic violence, in Kentucky and elsewhere. One would hope that a judge ruling on a protective order petition would know enough about DV to conduct a clinical-quality lethality assessment, for example, but I can’t imagine there are many who could. All told, I am not at all sure, at this point, whether I should be encouraged by the current status quo for adjudication of DV cases; in fact, I’m not at all sure I know what the status quo is or if there is one, since my perspective is still very limited and the variation from state to state, county to county, and even courtroom to courtroom is clearly so extensive. All I can do, I suppose, is continue to enhance my knowledge and awareness. I will hopefully have an opportunity to observe a DV-related trial in criminal court in the near future; it will be interesting, I’m sure, to see how such a trial compares to family court hearings, and it might shed more light on the matter of which cases are appropriate for which court.

I’m also looking forward to riding along with a Louisville police officer from the domestic violence unit. Law enforcement response to domestic violence, of course, is just as important as responsible judicial attention, if not more so. If my ride-along is at all instructive or eventful, I’ll be sure to write a post about it here.