Domestic violence court division expands
Monday, November 29, 2010
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
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
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
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
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
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."