The Verdict Is In: Mandate Domestic Violence Training for Judges

Mandatory Domestic Violence Training for Judges

Law enforcement officers, social workers, health care professionals, teachers, and other state employees have been pushed to learn about the dynamics of domestic violence, but one crucial group of people is sometimes overlooked—our judges.

It is not uncommon for a victim to change his or her story or to feel uncertain while in court. It is the judge’s role and responsibility to not only rule fairly but also to understand the position of the victim—a position often driven by fear and confusion.

Kentucky judges recently decided that the previously mandatory domestic violence training for judges should now be optional. This is concerning not only because every individual in law enforcement and court should go through DV training, but also because it is not enough to allow judges to attend trainings as they see fit.

On my own college campus there are many “Step Up” trainings held to foster bystander intervention and promote a greater knowledge of sexual assault and rape on campus. While the training is informative and extremely well done, the people who need to hear the training the most (people who have the potential to intervene or act as future perpetrators) often do not think or take the initiative to attend a training. In other words, the trainings are mostly “preaching to the choir” or in this case a room full of college student who are already passionate and informed about domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape prevention.

The “preaching to the choir” phenomenon can extend to judicial education. If judges are able to elect whether or not they think domestic violence training would be beneficial for them, odds are the judges that most need the training will not receive the relevant information.

Judges need training because many may be unaware of the effects of domestic violence as well barriers in the legal system that impede victims. Judicial education eliminates gender biases in court rooms and helps judges to understand how they need to explain rulings to both the victim and the perpetrator in ways to reduce further contact and violence.

In Next Time She’ll Be Dead, Ann Jones explains that there are necessary changes in the criminal justice system in order to support women leaving domestic violence. Judicial education informs judges on lethality risks and can help them understand the risk associated with a batterer who has threatened suicide. It can also help judges to overcome “letting their own bias of a nuclear family blind them to the dangers women and children face.” Everything from divorce proceedings to custody hearings can be better informed when judges understand the risks and dangers associated with domestic violence.

In Kentucky this is even more compelling because recent changes in the law now allow victims of dating violence to receive protective orders. There is debate between family court and district court over who should hear the cases and who is “most equipped” to deal with this issue. What if all judges received training on dating and domestic violence? Because regardless of who is handling these cases the issue is present in every court room.

While the “preaching to the choir” phenomenon may be manageable at my college because if one person chooses not to attend a training it isn’t the end of the world, judges have considerably more power and influence. A judge armed with the powerful knowledge from DV training is more likely to rule in fair and just ways for the victim. They are able to understand a victim’s hesitation about speaking up. They are able to identify risk factors within the relationship that the victim themselves may not even recognize. They are able to alleviate barriers put in front of victims by the legal system.

Without this kind of knowledge, we may see more occurrences of what happened in court on June 12 when a Jefferson County judge put a victim behind bars for changing her story after her abuser used coercive behaviors from behind bars to intimidate her to change her testimony.

Furthermore, what is the purpose in training police officers, lawyers, and social workers on domestic violence if the highest authority on the law will not be trained on the issue? What is the purpose in implementing protocol so that police take action if any progress will only be reversed by a judge who doesn’t understand the complexities of domestic violence?

In August of 2008, Dorene Seidl went to court to have a Domestic Violence Order (DVO) entered after she had filed a series of EPO’s documenting a history of abuse. The judge claimed the case was a “he said, she said” and ruled it was not domestic violence. When Dorene Seidl went home a few days later accompanied by Mr. Seidl’s brother to gather her belongings, Mr. Seidl emptied a loaded gun into her and murdered her.

Had the DVO been entered, the police would have escorted Dorene Seidl safely into her home to pick up her things. Mr. Seidl wouldn’t have been able to purchase the new gun used to murder his wife.

Had the DVO been entered, chances are much higher that Dorene Seidl would be alive.

So how do you know if your judges are receiving the right information? How do you know victims in your community are safe in courtrooms? The map above shows the requirements for judges in some states. If your state isn’t colored, reach out to your local judge. Reach out to your state’s coalition against domestic violence which would be happy to talk to you about the regulations and requirements surrounding domestic violence.

Although many states require domestic violence training for judges, we have to continue to ask is it adequate? Is a 2 hour seminar once every few years enough to truly hone in on and understand the issue that can cause substance abuse, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) affecting behavior and parenting, and most importantly victims who act desperately out of fear and may make mistakes in and out of court because of it?

Laws vary based on state, but no matter where you live you can have an influence on how your judges are selected. 39 states hold elections for trial court judges. 31 have elections for intermediate appellate courts. You have an influence and power over who makes decisions in court.

It is not enough for only family court judges to have experience with domestic violence. If this is their chosen profession why would a judge choose not to go to a training that pertains to so many of the people they serve? Shouldn’t they be jumping at the chance to improve their ability to serve?

Domestic Violence is an epidemic affecting 1 in 4 women in her lifetime and therefore will touch every court room and every judge. Find out more information on the judges in your area and demand that every judge receives appropriate and timely information on domestic violence.