Complainants in domestic violence cases have unique needs, so the prompt and effective provision of services to victims is of paramount importance. What follows are key principles for ensuring victim safety gleaned from the operation of domestic violence courts in New York.
One of the guiding principles of domestic violence courts—misdemeanor, felony, and integrated—is victim safety. Complainants in domestic violence cases have unique needs and concerns; they are often dependent economically on their assailant, have children in common, and may be threatened by the defendant or the defendant’s relatives during the course of a case. Therefore, the prompt and effective provision of services to victims is of paramount importance.
What follows are key principles for ensuring victim safety gleaned from the operation of domestic violence courts in New York:
Provide victims with immediate access to advocates. Every victim should be given immediate access to an advocate who can provide safety planning and explain court procedures. Comprehensive victim advocacy should include access to counseling, job training, immigration services, child services, and other programs aimed at improving self-sufficiency. A victim should remain paired with her advocate throughout the case (i.e., from police response through post-disposition).
Quickly link victims with social services. Advocates should link victims with social service agencies, emergency shelter, food, and civil legal services, as necessary. This makes sense in human terms (providing people in crisis with help as soon as possible) and in terms of improving court outcomes. Studies have shown that when victims receive assistance early in the court process, they are much more likely to remain engaged in their cases. Victims are also more likely to follow through with a case when they clearly understand the legal process.
Keep victims informed. In addition to providing general information and referrals, advocates should provide victims with up-to-date information on their cases. This reduces the burden on the victim to constantly reappear in court to learn the status of her case, and ultimately reduces her chances of being placed in further danger. It also gives the victim the feeling that the system cares about her welfare; this may, in turn, persuade the victim to do all she can to participate in the prosecution.
Schedule cases promptly. Another way to enhance victim safety is to schedule domestic violence cases promptly so that victims can get an order of protection quickly. The longer the victim must wait for legal action, the longer she is at risk. The sooner a case can be heard, the sooner assistance can be provided. In Westchester County, for instance, felonies are transferred immediately to the domestic violence court after the initial filing of an indictment. This allows for the rapid issuance of orders of protection, and sends the message to defendants that the case is being taken seriously. It also allows the court to link victims to services as early in the process as possible. Experience indicates that delays give the batterer more time to convince the victim to become uncooperative.
Create safe places within the courthouse. Court planners should provide security and comfort for victims. Design elements can include providing private space to speak with advocates and separate waiting areas near the victim services office. The Bronx Misdemeanor Domestic Violence Court, in fact, has a separate safe waiting area staffed by victim advocates; victims are escorted to and from the courtrooms when they need to testify.