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Domestic violence court division expands

Monday, November 29, 2010
SouthtownStar
by Michael Drakulich

Diane Bedrosian has been busier than usual the past six months or so as Cook County expands its domestic violence court to suburban districts - an attempt to streamline services and protect victims at the same time.

As executive director of South Suburban Family Shelter, which provides help to victims of domestic violence, Bedrosian has been ramping up funding and staffing to handle what's expected to be a much larger case load in the coming months. Nevertheless, Bedrosian welcomes the looming changes to the county court system.

"This means more victims will get the help they need. I see it as a change for the better, and it will be really good," Bedrosian said. "It will be more work for my staff. But it will be better for us overall."

The new domestic violence division within the county court system was set up earlier this year with an eye toward centralizing and streamlining domestic violence cases throughout the county while improving victim protection. The division started in January and since has expanded to three of the county's five suburban districts, including Bridgeview, in September. Expansion to Markham is slated for early 2011.

When the domestic violence division expands to Markham early next year, it will make more work for South Suburban Family Shelter court advocate Laura Velasquez, too. But she says she's ready.

Under the current system, Velasquez said, some cases can be categorized incorrectly or in different ways. For example, a case involving criminal property damage actually may be domestic in nature. But the case may be heard in a different court unrelated to domestic violence. The same victim may want to file a petition for an order of protection. But he or she will have to do so in another court, with another judge and staff.

Once the program opens in Markham, Velasquez anticipates such cases would be routed to the domestic violence division where they likely would be heard by the same judges and dealt with by the same staff. Then there is the opportunity for continued follow-up, she said.

"When someone has an order of protection, they need assistance in enforcing it. Coming to the same courtroom with the same staff, victims feel supported. They feel empowered and want to learn more about their cases," she said.

When repeat offenders appear before the same judge several times, that judge may impose tougher punishments because he or she may remember more intimate details of the case, Velasquez said. And that in turn may deter some repeat violations.

Continuity between court staff and specific cases may lead to fewer victims falling through the system's cracks, Velasquez said.

But that's all in theory. Execution has to be done well for the division to achieve what it's creators envisioned.

Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans appointed Judge Grace G. Dickler, a 22-year veteran of the bench, as the division's presiding judge.

The division grew out of the domestic violence courthouse at 555 W. Harrison St., Chicago, which first began hearing cases in 2005. At the time, however, it only was for domestic violence cases that originated in Chicago.

Dickler said Evans first wanted to examine operations at the domestic violence courthouse to ensure it was on the cutting edge of safety for victims and provided resources countywide to help stop the cycle of violence.

Evans assembled a committee in Fall 2008, of which Dickler was a member, to examine operations more closely. Dickler said the committee met frequently for about a year and solicited the input of state's attorneys, public defenders and domestic violence advocacy groups. The committee also looked to other counties to see how they handled domestic violence cases in their court systems.

"There is no county like Cook in terms of sheer numbers," Dickler said. "We wanted to make sure that if anyone had good ideas or were doing things we weren't, that we would benefit from their experience."

The committee recommended civil and criminal domestic violence matters be centralized in a countywide division, not just Chicago. Where domestic cases could be heard in either criminal or civil division courts, bringing everything under the umbrella of one domestic violence division unifies criminal and civil cases and unifies the city with the rest of the county. It also ensures the same quality of services and training countywide, she said.

Dickler said the division allows for more uniform case management and thus better protection for victims. For instance, she said, in cases where a victim does not want to pursue a case in court or realizes she can't win but still feels threatened, the division will help with orders of protection as well.

"Cook County is unique in that it is the largest unified court system in the country, I believe. In terms of big counties that have the population of Cook County, I think we're at the forefront with this division," Dickler said.

Edward Vega is executive editor at the Crisis Center for South Suburbia, a nonprofit agency that provides emergency shelter and other essential services - including court advocacy - for victims of domestic violence and their families. Vega said he favored the more centralized approach and praised the county for providing additional training to the division's judicial and nonjudicial staff.

"Lamentably, in the past, we had court officers that really weren't knowledgeable of domestic violence. It has its own dynamics, its own complex problems. It's a benefit to victims when all the officers are trained in domestic violence and all its dynamics," Vega said.

Former Chicago Heights Police Chief and Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Karla Fiaoni - now an attorney in private practice - long has been an advocate for victims of domestic violence. She secured federal funding so the Chicago Heights Police Department could have a unit dedicated to handling domestic violence-related crimes in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s.

Fiaoni said she sees quite a few benefits with centralized operations for domestic violence cases, among them increased importance within the county court system and having such matters solved in a more equitable fashion.

But she wants to see the division in action.

"In theory, it sounds like it's long overdue. If it serves to educate and bring about equal treatment, if it brings about more accountability, I'm all for it," she said. "But it's all in the implementation, and that remains to be seen."



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