I know at least when people are in the courthouse, they are safer, and we're having less defendants come back with repeat counts of domestic violence.
Just because smaller communities generally have fewer resources doesn’t mean they aren’t innovating or taking new approaches that others can learn from and emulate. In Pulaski County, Virginia, home to about 35,000 people, they have implemented a number of changes to better address domestic violence.
Judge H. Lee Chitwood presides over the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in Pulaski County and Jaime Clemmer is the court coordinator. Working with community partners, they launched a weekly docket to review cases of domestic violence offenders on probation. They also improved how they handled protective orders by, for instance, ensuring that a victim advocate is present to make initial contact with victims. In addition, they created a video to educate petitioners about protective orders, and the court spearheaded a pilot project to make information about civil protective orders readily accessible to petitioners, respondents, and law enforcement.
Judge Chitwood points out that they didn’t need more money to implement changes. “Sit down with everyone in your community and make a plan as to how you are going to change your practices. You can make fundamental changes in your community without spending any money whatsoever,” he says.
This podcast was supported by Grant No. 2017-TA-AX-K040 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, or recommendations expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.
The following is a transcript of the interview:
H. LEE CHITWOOD: I know at least when people are in the courthouse, they are safer, and we're having less defendants come back with repeat counts of domestic violence.
ROB WOLF: I'm Rob Wolf, and this is New Thinking, the podcast of the Center for Court Innovation. One thing I've learned from working at the Center is that the way the justice system handles certain types of cases can vary from state to state, and even county to county, or town to town. Busy urban centers, for instance, will often approach cases differently than smaller communities. But just because smaller communities generally have fewer resources doesn't mean they aren't innovating or taking new approaches that everyone can learn from and emulate. Today I'm going to talk to two people who have helped change the way Pulaski County, home to about 35,000 people in Southwest Virginia, handle domestic violence. H. Lee Chitwood is the presiding judge of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in Pulaski County. He's been on the bench since 1999. Jaime Clemmer works closely with Judge Chitwood as the court coordinator serving as a liaison between all the many moving parts that make the court run smoothly. Judge Chitwood, Jaime Clemmer, welcome to the podcast.
JAIME CLEMMER: Thank you.
CHITWOOD: Thank you.
WOLF: Judge Chitwood, you've been on the bench since 1999. Can you take us back to those early years and tell us how the justice system approached domestic violence cases?
CHITWOOD: Sure. It was very antiquated. Folks would come in, they would be allowed to simply drop warrants if they did not wish to go forward. The prosecution was very scattered. There was no consistency, and it did very little to protect victims.
WOLF: Obviously you now take a different approach. What changed for you? How did you learn that there were in fact different ways to approach these cases, and what made you want to try to bring these approaches to Pulaski County?
CHITWOOD: The Supreme Court of Virginia is very good in the education that it provides to judges. I attended a number of trainings, both in Virginia and other places with respect to domestic violence. Eventually the light bulb came on that we were not doing things correctly and we needed to change.
WOLF: What was the message you were getting from these trainings?
CHITWOOD: Two things. We were not protecting the victims of domestic violence, and we were not teaching the perpetrators to change their behavior. We were not holding perpetrators accountable. We were never able to get folks out of the cycle of violence that perpetuates in domestic violence.
WOLF: When you began to look at your system and think how you could make things better to address some of those concerns you had, what was the first step you took?
CHITWOOD: The first step was to invite everyone to a meeting, all the stakeholders, to use a cliché, and sit down at a table, and introduce everybody, and talk about what each person's role was in domestic violence, hear everyone's perspective, and then to make a commitment to begin using best practices.
WOLF: You started the court in 2011, and I understand that there was some resistance when you look around that table where you gathered people together. Can you talk to me about that? What were people resisting, and how did you win them over?
CHITWOOD: There was some resistance from the defense bar. They did not want their folks to have to attend batterers intervention training or classes. At one point we were using anger management, which is entirely inappropriate for domestic violence. And most folks were quite willing to make the changes we needed. Some things I just had to put my foot down and say, "We are not going to continue to do this." It was a combination of those two things, I guess.
CLEMMER: I think one thing that also helped was to give people a voice. In the early stages as we sat together in these stakeholders meetings, one of the first things that we did was we put together a very generic survey--"What are you doing? What do you think we should be doing?—just to identify practices, policies, procedures, attitudes that all these different departments had. We gave them free reign to write and say any of their concerns, any of their questions, and I think giving people a chance to air their concerns validated their concerns, and it helped us address them and then move forward.
WOLF: Let me ask you both, how do you go about changing someone's thinking if they've been thinking a certain way for a very long time?
CHITWOOD: I think there was a consensus that what we were doing was not working. No matter where you were in the spectrum of domestic violence, and whether you saw change is necessary, I think we could all agree that we were not improving our community. We were just responding to domestic violence, but we were never changing anything. People maybe didn't want to change their practices, but I think we had a general acknowledgement that what we were doing was not working. I think the way you change people's minds is by education. We have had annual domestic violence seminars. I think when you hear from both local folks and you hear from experts, it's easier to change your mind and realize that you have to change your practices.
CLEMMER: I completely agree. It's education, training, more education, more training, dragging people to trainings, getting upper management to insist that all of their staff attend trainings, and then do more trainings, and more trainings again. I think back to one in particular, we had a strangulation training. Virginia had made strangulation a felony about a year prior to us bringing the training in. It was almost like people didn't believe it. Then as they listened to this doctor and they listened to these experts, some of the law enforcement were saying, "I didn't even know strangulation had been made into a felony here in Virginia." You watched the light bulb as they're sitting there, and they start with their back to the presenter. Then as the day moves on, they're slowly turning their chair. Then you can see them engaged.
One thing also is we brought in a trainer who was law enforcement. I think having experts who are nationally known experts but who are working in the field, who understand the dynamics of domestic violence, and who understand the specific concerns that, say for example, police officers have, to bring in a police officer to educate makes a huge difference, to bring in a lawyer to educate lawyers.
CHITWOOD: I totally agree.
WOLF: Let's talk about the size of your community. When you describe those trainings, it makes me think that you have wonderful resources that you can access to bring in these kinds of trainers, but I also imagine that maybe because you're a smaller community, you also in certain areas maybe struggle with resources.
CHITWOOD: We're really lucky in some ways. Even though we're not a wealthy community, we have excellent victim witness office. We have a local women's resource center that sends their folks to court. We have a certified batterers' intervention program that's taught by a gentleman, Dr. Keith Fender, who's recognized statewide and probably nationwide for his work with domestic violence offenders. We have a local probation office to supervise these folks. We don't have a lot of funds, but we do have good programs and programs that cooperate and want to do well in this field.
CLEMMER: As we started looking at the need for education and the need for training, we knew that a huge barrier would be us charging a fee. From the beginning, we said, "We are not going to charge anybody who attends a penny to come. We will have to absorb the cost, or we'll have to find cosponsors," because we knew that our agencies could not afford to send their entire staff if there was a fee involved. We started looking around, and we tried to create partnerships. For example, we have a community college close by, New River Community College. One of the things that they do is they donate the space for us to have the conferences in.
CHITWOOD: Right. We've been lucky to get some grants to pay for speakers to come in, to pay their fee, and their travel, and their lodging. We had a local lawyer provide lunch on one occasion. We've had the Women's Resource Center help us set up lunch on other occasions. We don't have a lot of our own funds that we can use, but we do have a lot of community stakeholders that will help us.
CLEMMER: We've also been able to call national organizations and say, "Okay, this is our need," for example, the Center for Court Innovation. We had an issue with probation. We needed some training on how they worked with victims. We said, "We have no money. Do you have money? Do other agencies have money? Do other agencies have trainings that they're required to provide?"
WOLF: Could you give me a sense of what your caseload is and what your workload is like?
CHITWOOD: Yes. Overall, certainly we have more cases, less than a larger jurisdiction like a Roanoke or a Virginia Beach, but in terms of the cases per judge or cases per clerk, our numbers are just as high as anywhere else. For example, yesterday we had about 70 cases on the docket. I did 44 in the morning from 8:30 to noon, plus an additional probably three video arraignments. Our caseload is as high as anywhere else in the state of Virginia and higher than a lot of places.
WOLF: Judge Chitwood, I know you grew up in the area. I was wondering, is that a plus in that you perhaps know a lot of people and know how to get things done, or are there disadvantages to being from a smaller jurisdiction like this?
CHITWOOD: I think it's probably an advantage being from this community. I grew up here. My brothers and sisters grew up here. My mom and dad were local physicians. I know the president of the community college. It's a small community, so I know a lot of the law enforcement folks, and the Commonwealth's attorney, and that type of thing. I don't see any real disadvantage.
WOLF: Does it help you be more persuasive or bring people to the table when you want to call a meeting?
CHITWOOD: I don't know if it does or not. Supposedly when a judge calls a meeting, people will just automatically come to the table. I haven't found that always to be true, but I do think it is mostly true that if a judge asks you to attend a meeting, you will.
WOLF: Let's talk about some of the changes that you've enacted over time. I know you've introduced quite a few new ways of handling domestic violence cases.
CHITWOOD: I think the best thing we've ever done is our domestic violence review docket. That was fairly easy to set up. It didn't cost anything. We just had to set up a separate time, Wednesday at 11:30, to review our cases for domestic violence offenders who are on probation. The benefit of that is I don't enter an order and then we just forget about the case for four, five, six months and don't hear anything about it until they don't do what they're supposed to. This way I have them come back for a 90-day review to check their progress on probation. If they're doing well, then I can set it for a 30 or 60-day review and see them again. If they're not doing what they're supposed to, then we have a mechanism for bringing them back in immediately. That keeps people from falling through the cracks. They have automatic accountability.
Some other things we've done in terms of our protective orders, we really have a coordinated process from the time that the protective order is obtained at our local court service unit to the point where it's brought to our court and set for trial. We set them all for the same time every day at 1:00 so the victim advocates know to be present to make the initial contact with these folks. We developed a video. It's about 12 minutes that talks about protective orders. We offer that to the petitioners to give them more education about protective orders. Then at the full hearing, I require the respondents, the folks subject to a protective order, I require them to watch that before they leave the courthouse. That's been very helpful.
WOLF: I hear that having them watch the video at the end also allows the victim to leave the building safely, giving her time to leave while the respondent is watching the video.
CHITWOOD: That's absolutely correct. I'll tell the respondent, "I'm going to have you watch this video." The bailiff takes him into a room, turns the TV on with the video, serves the protective order on him. While that's going on, victim witness or the advocates take the petitioner out a different door out of the courthouse safely so that they can get out of the building safely before he even leaves the courthouse. That's an added benefit of that.
WOLF: I heard that this video is also being used at the Virginia Supreme Court to help train new judges.
CHITWOOD: Yes, they're using that at their pre-bench sessions on domestic violence. I've pretty liberally shared it with anybody that would like a copy. It's also on the website of Pulaski County. It's readily available for anybody that would like to use it.
WOLF: Okay. We can put a link to that too with this interview on our website. What other things would you highlight in terms of things you've introduced, new things?
CLEMMER: One of the things that we did in the very beginning that didn't, again, cost any money was that we just started tracking information. By creating a database where we were tracking sentencing, charges, things like that, we were able to identify what was happening in the courts and look for patterns and trends. It was a great way for us to identify what was working and what wasn't working. We were able to show those numbers to the commonwealth's attorney and then say, "Okay, how are we going to address this?" That was easy to do, and it didn't cost anything.
CLEMMER: The other thing that we've been a part of is the Hope Card Project. Pulaski County was a pilot for the Hope Card Project. The Hope Cards are small plastic cards like the size of a credit card. What those laminated cards do is they provide all the essential information from a civil protective order that's easily accessible in an easy to read format for petitioners and respondents if they're interested to carry around that information. One, it makes it easier to access that information for themselves, but two, on the information card it asks whether or not a weapon was involved, and it's highlighted in red. Say you have an incident that's involving a respondent and a petitioner and the police have been called. Someone can pull out that card and immediately in bright red letters show, yes, a weapon was involved, or no, a weapon was not involved.
Then police officers can see that, and then at of course influences how they approach a situation knowing that there was or was not a weapon involved. I think that's something that's been really great. We piloted it in Pulaski, and we've seen such success with it in Pulaski that about 20 other counties in the state of Virginia have said, "Hey, I like what they're doing. We want to do it, too."
WOLF: So you've had real influence across the state with what you're doing.
CLEMMER: I think we have.
CHITWOOD: One other practice, again, that didn't cost us anything was frequently you will have petitioners, usually women, come back in 30, 60, 90 days and say, "I want to end my protective order." In the old days, I would ask a few questions and say, "Are you sure this is what you want to do?" and I would just routinely grant that request. I became pretty uncomfortable with that because I didn't think it was keeping people safe. We developed a bench card of questions. It's about 40 questions at this point, two pages. When the petitioner comes in, I go through all those questions with that petitioner so that I can make sure that she has thought of all these topics and I have thought of all these things. If we get to the end of that process and I don't feel like she's going to be safe, I will deny her request to end the protective order, or I may modify the protective order to allow contact if I feel like she can be safe. That was a way for me to have a more systematic approach to that problem and not just do it based on a hunch or based on a few questions.
WOLF: I know you have regular stakeholder meetings that bring together other partners, the sheriff's office, attorneys. I wonder what changes you've been able to promote through that collaborative effort.
CLEMMER: I can immediately think of one change. When we all got together at one of the meetings, some of the victim witness folks and the advocates said, "The way the courtroom is set up, and the way the bailiff is bringing people in, we're getting a lot of intimidation from the respondent to the petitioner." We were able to brainstorm, "Okay, how could we turn the tables? How could we bring people in in a different order? How could we address this?" It was just a matter of having the bailiff bring someone in first, and bring someone in second, and using different doors in the courtroom.
CHITWOOD: Another concrete example of just sitting down and talking. An adjoining county, Montgomery County, had what's called a safe space, a safe exchange zone where you could exchange children for visitation. We didn't have that. I clipped an article from the newspaper, we sat down at a meeting, and I said, "I wish we could do this in Pulaski County." Captain Danny Johnson, who's on our Domestic Violence Committee, just took it, ran with it, and the Sheriff's Office set it up completely on its own where we now have a space behind the Sheriff's Office with video cameras, with signage where people can come and exchange children for visitation.
WOLF: You have all accomplished clearly a lot in the years that you've been doing this. I wonder, what do you think the most important ingredient is to your success in bringing these new approaches to how domestic violence is handled in Pulaski County.
CHITWOOD: I would say two things, collaboration of all the stakeholders, and number two is education.
CLEMMER: I would add a third, persistence. Sometimes it felt like we were walking an inch forward and 23 feet back, but persistence, persistence.
WOLF: How do you measure the fact that change has in fact occurred?
CHITWOOD: I don't know if we can quantify it at this point, but I do know what we are doing is better. I know at least when people are in the courthouse, they are safer, and we're having less defendants come back with repeat counts of domestic violence. I don't have the precise numbers to back it up, but I do know anecdotally we are doing better.
WOLF: What advice would both of you give to other rural communities who want to improve the way that they handle cases of domestic violence?
CHITWOOD: I would say do not be intimidated by a lack of money or a lack of resources. Sit down with everyone in your community and make a plan as to how you are going to change your practices. You can make fundamental changes in your community without spending any money whatsoever.
CLEMMER: I would agree and add to that, look at what your core issues are and how you can address them as a rural community, as a smaller court, if you will. I can't do everything that they're doing in New York, and that's okay because there are things that I can do in Pulaski that are impactful and that make change. I just have to adapt so that I'm in line with best practices and that the court is doing what they should be doing and need to be doing to address domestic and sexual violence even though it might not be exactly what others in bigger localities are doing.
WOLF: Those are great words for anyone interested in really improving things for people who are going through these painful and difficult cases. I want to thank you both for joining me on New Thinking and sharing what you guys are doing in Pulaski County. Thank you.
CHITWOOD: Thank you.
CLEMMER: Thank you.
WOLF: I've been talking to H. Lee Chitwood, who is the presiding judge of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in Pulaski County in Virginia, and with him today on the line has been Jaime Clemmer, who works closely with the judge as the docket court coordinator of the Domestic Violence Court. I'm Rob Wolf, I'm director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Please consider subscribing to our podcast and leaving a review if you've enjoyed what you've heard, and visiting us on our website at www.courtinnovation.org. Our theme music is by Michael Aharon of quivernyc.com, and I've had editing assistance from Matthew Watkins. Thanks again for listening.