Judge Miriam Cyrulnik explains how the court—the first of its kind in the country—addresses the unique needs of adolescent domestic violence victims and perpetrators.
The following is a transcript:
ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi, this is Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation, and welcome to another episode of New Thinking, a podcast produced by the Center for Court Innovation to highlight practitioners, researchers, and others, who are experimenting with new approaches to justice. Today I'm in the chambers of King's County Criminal Court Judge Miriam Cyrulnik, who presides over the Brooklyn Youthful Offender Domestic Violence Court and also the Adult Domestic Violence Court and Criminal Court. Although today I'd like to focus on Youthful Offender Domestic Violence Court. I thought I'd start out by asking you a little bit about the differences between the adult court and the youthful court. I'm a little more familiar with the domestic violence courts that work with adult offenders and the goals of those courts, as I understand them are victim safety and accountability, which is all about increasing monitoring of defendants to make sure they abide strictly by court orders. The youthful offender domestic violence court, I understand, works with young people as the name suggests, 16 to 19 years old. Is that correct?
WOLF: So I thought I would ask you, are the goals in your court the same as they are in the adult version of the court?
CYRULNIK: First of all, it's good to be with you today. In many ways the courts are the same because it's still a court of law, there's still a presumption of innocence, cases have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to convict a defendant. What's similar is, as you said the goals of victim safety, batterer accountability. The part works with teenagers, as you said, ages 16 to 19 who are in dating relationships where there are allegations of violence. We have some same-sex couples, but predominantly male and female. We have a designated victim advocate who works with the district attorney's office to do outreach to teenage victims. We have a dedicated batterers program that's targeted towards the behavioral learning and I guess psycho-social development of teenagers. It is a bridged program, it is free, it's a 12 week batterers program that's free, as opposed to the adults who will go for 26 weeks and have to pay for the program. And I will probably see these kids more often when I ask them to come back to court for monitoring, etc. Those are the main differences.
WOLF: And how do the types of offending differ from your typical adult domestic violence case, to a case involving a teen defendant? And this, of course, is in the context of both situations we're talking about misdemeanors, is that correct?
CYRULNIK: My jurisdiction is over misdemeanors and violations, which for those who may not be familiar, a misdemeanor is a criminal offense, the maximum penalty is a year on a misdemeanor. The kinds of cases that we see are very similar. You get a certain percentage of young people who are charged with actual assault, where there is an allegation of striking or injuring the complaining witness. You have menacing threats to that person, harassment, threats to the other person. We're starting to see, of course, technology being what it is, we're starting to see more cases involving text messages and emails that are perhaps threatening or alleged to be threatening. And I’m seeing that with regards to adults as well, but of course kids are much more technically savvy so you're more likely to see it there. But there are some cases in which there are allegations of physical assault. No different than any other.
WOLF: I was looking at some statistics about the court and I thought it was interesting to note that although you speak of dating relationships, in about 50 percent of cases the victim and the defendant have a child in common?
CYRULNIK: Yeah, they do. And there's a small percentage, probably under 20 percent I think where they may actually have a second child, two children in common. And that was surprising, that was shocking to us, and it presents lots of challenges, particularly in terms of working with the victims—shelters are not geared towards teenaged kids into the shelter system, particularly with children. We have a number of situations that we come across where the young girl, perhaps after the child is conceived or born, her parents do not want her in the house and often she's living with the defendant and his family. These kids lead very complicated lives.
WOLF: I know that an important component of what you do is to offer services to the victims, so I wonder what kinds of services you do offer.
CYRULNIK: Most of the services that might be offered to victims probably would be through the Family Justice Center, through the district attorney's office. The court itself does not offer services to the victims. There is an outreach made to every single complaining witness in these cases. I don't want to speak for the D.A., but their goal is to get the complaining witness, the victim, to sign a supporting deposition so the case can go forward. But if she's not cooperative, they will still try to offer her services and counseling, including shelter issues, if there are immigration issues. The Family Justice Center has a huge array of services available.
WOLF: How are these situations handled before?
CYRULNIK: Most cases involving teenage couples who are in a dating relationship, they were treated as any other domestic violence case. I mean certainly, 10 or 12 or 15 years ago, domestic violence cases were not given any special attention so the majority of those cases used to just get dismissed. The problem of teen dating violence was really no one spoke about it, no one looked at it.
WOLF: And what's the advantage to having a separate forum where you focus on teen dating violence as opposed to the adult domestic violence?
CYRULNIK: First of all, frankly, even in terms of the batterer's program, no one thinks it's a good idea to have a 17-year-old teenager who may have had one incident, sitting next to a 50-year-old career batterer. The kinds of discussions in the batterers program are going to be totally different. Their development is at a different stage, their brain capacity is at a different stage, physiologically. So there are all kinds of issues to separate the teenagers out from some of the adults. It also sends a message to any of the teenagers who happen to be in court or who hear about it that we take it seriously. Victims get the message that we take it seriously. We're willing to listen and it's certainly very important in terms of their feeling satisfied with the outcome or safe in going forward, or just making arrangements that will assist them in their safety plan.
WOLF: When this court started, and it started in 2003? Is that correct?
It was really one of the first. I think there might have been one in California, but then it was the second of these courts, domestic violence courts that focused on youthful offenders. And I wonder, you know, do you feel like the idea is catching on? Have there been replications? Do you get inquiries? What's your sense?
CYRULNIK: We get them all the time. The one in California was a family court model. My understanding was that this was the first in a criminal court setting.
WOLF: Oh, okay.
CYRULNIK: There is now a youthful offender court in the Bronx. There are plans to open them in a number of different jurisdictions, and we get inquiries all the time. We get people from around the world who are coming in to watch what we do at YODVC.
WOLF: And I wonder, from your perspective as a judge, do you have a different experience from before for the adults versus the teens?
CYRULNIK: Absolutely, absolutely. I talk to them differently. I am much more likely to—they are all represented by counsel—but I am much more likely to actively engage them in conversation. If they're in the program, if they come to court, they're gonna get that positive reinforcement right up front, which in our part consists of my promise to them that we call their cases as the first one on the calendar. And they respond to the fact that court begins at 2:15 and they may be done for the day at 2:30. And that's a real concrete reward. And a lot of them focus on that and I make sure that we honor that. I will sometimes take notes in the file about if they have had a child, if they are in school, if they are graduating, and I'll ask them how the child is doing, if there's no order of protection, obviously. I also talk pretty sternly to them if there is a problem and they watch how I handle everyone else's case too, if there’s any problem. They wait to see what the result is gonna be.
WOLF: What's your sense of their understanding of domestic violence? I mean I, obviously they must have thought this was a way to engage—a normal way or an appropriate way to engage with their partner.
CYRULNIK: I'm sure. That, that is what I’ve heard anecdotally from some of the facilitators who do group. They're exposed to domestic violence at home, they're exposed to violence generally in the street. They're exposed to negative stereotypes of women in music, videos. All these things help to convey the message that you're the man and it's okay if you control her and tell her what to do. And we have immigrant populations here and there are cultural issues that come up. So there are a lot of different things that we have to deal with to sort of get the message across that it is not acceptable.
WOLF: And what are the consequences of non-compliance?
CYRULNIK: There are a number of different options. Whenever I take a plea, I make sure that the defendant knows that he—and most of them are men so I’ll say he—that he knows that he is facing 15 days in jail on a violation, up to 90 days in jail on a B misdemeanor, or up to a year in jail on an A misdemeanor. And those are some serious jail sentences for someone of their age. If they're in the batterer's program, if they're kicked out one time, they are eligible to be reinstated to the program with a three class penalty. So they have to finish a total of 15. If they don't do it the second time, they go to jail. And there is nothing that makes the point more crystal clear to the guys in the audience than when cuffs get slapped on someone else. And they're told you do it or you don't. You don't: you go to jail.
WOLF: It's obviously very challenging work and I wonder if you enjoy it.
CYRULNIK: I always tell people it's hard to put the words 'enjoy' and 'domestic violence' in the same sentence, but I like what I'm doing. I’ve been doing it for almost four years, and it's tough when I have to put somebody in jail, but when I see a young man who has really seemed to get it, and when you have a chance to actually make a difference in somebody's life, it's a wonderful thing. It's a wonderful thing.
WOLF: Well thank you very much. I've really enjoyed talking with you. I've been talking with Judge Miriam Cyrulnik of the King's County Criminal Court. To learn more about the Brooklyn Youth Offender Domestic Violence Court, you can visit the publications page at the Center for Court Innovation's website. The main site is www.courtinnovation.org, and there's a tab at the top of the page labeled publications. And on that page, in addition to all kinds of interesting articles and white papers, you'll find a publication called Youth Dating Violence: Can a Court Help Break the Cycle? by my colleague Christine Herman, which gives more background on youthful offender domestic violence court. You can subscribe to the New Thinking podcast through iTunes or you can visit us on our podcast page on www.courtinnovation.org. I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation, and thank you so much for taking the time. And thanks, thank you to everyone who's been listening.