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Law Firm News

Integrated Domestic Violence Docket Project in Windham County

by Wynona I. Ward, Esq., Founding Director, HJWT
jessica smith After being an important stakeholder in the Integrated Domestic Violence Docket (IDVD) in Bennington for several years, Have Justice-Will Travel (HJWT) is pleased to now be a part of the newly developed IDVD in Windham County. Funded by a grant written and received by the Vermont Court Administrator's Office from the U. S. Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) this project provides a holistic collaborative approach for plaintiffs and defendants who are in family or criminal court rather than using the traditional litigation model.

The Honorable David Suntag who has spent much of his judicial career handling domestic violence cases spearheaded the IDVD in both Bennington and Windham counties. In 2013, Judge Suntag wrote, "After 23 years on the family and criminal court trial bench experiencing the frustration and helplessness of watching the traditional court system deal inadequately with so many of those affected by domestic violence, the IDVD program provided new hope and energy." The IDVD is structured so relief from abuse (RFA), criminal domestic assault misdemeanors, violation of relief from abuse orders, and certain related family cases are all reviewed, discussed and heard the same day in front of one judge.

Legal representation is provided for both plaintiffs and defendants. Jessica A. Smith, Esq., a contract attorney for HJWT represents victims in these cases Wednesdays in Brattleboro. Jessica, who now has her own legal firm in Bennington, was instrumental in implementing the IDVD in Bennington when she was a staff attorney for HJWT from 2003 to 2007. E. Robin Goodrum, a paralegal and the HJWT LEAP Coordinator, assists Jessica each week.

The IDVD planning group included Judge Suntag, the Windham Superior Court Clerk, Regional Program Coordinator, Althea (Thea) Lloyd, Esq., HJWT, professionals from the public defender's and states attorney's offices, representatives from the Vermont Department of Corrections, the manager of the local batterers intervention program, an attorney from Vermont Legal Aid, a victims' advocate from the Women's Freedom Center, representatives from the local mental health agency and the Windham County Sheriff's Department.

By having these professionals involved, the IDVD project strives to resolve cases within one or two weeks of the offense and adheres to the concept that procedural fairness for everyone involved is essential. Immediate mental health and/or substance abuse assessments are available providing early access to appropriate services and community supports. Litigants are separated to assure everyone's safety, arriving at staggered times and are kept on different floors of the courthouse being watched over by deputy sheriffs. Attorneys meet with clients, attempt to negotiate resolutions, and conference with the Judge to discuss and triage the cases. If a contested hearing is needed, both parties have access to attorney representation. When there are RFAs as well as criminal charges involving the same victim and offender, all the attorneys are encouraged to discuss resolution of all the cases to assure consistent court orders.

Robin shared some wonderful, very positive feedback that she received from a young woman and her three support persons who were at the IDVD on October 1, 2014 for a RFA matter. All three had been through the RFA process prior to the commencement of the IDVD.

One had petitioned the court for a RFA order just the week before the IDVD started and had such a traumatic experience she quietly cried throughout her friend's morning at court. The other two were very forthcoming about the differences they were observing between their experiences and their friend's experience.

They felt the protection, understanding, support, information and guidance she was receiving, never mind the opportunity to not have to see her abuser or go into the courtroom, was an unimaginable improvement. All four appreciated that mental health services were available on site as well as the assistance of an attorney and the ability to feel safe while that attorney crafted a protection order. They highlighted how helpful it was to have an attorney willing to answer questions about enforcement of the order and if there were anything she could do after a year if she were still afraid for her safety.

The defendant never appeared in court that morning, however, he texted the woman many times while she waited for her order to be signed by the Judge. Since the defendant's texting constituted a violation of the temporary order she was very upset, frightened and worried that he would be waiting for her outside the courthouse. A court's deputy officer offered to escort her to the police department across the street where she was able to file a complaint regarding violations of the order; the state then filed charges. Needless to say she was very relieved to have the deputy's escort; the defendant was arrested later that day.

Wynona notes that, "HJWT is proud to be a part of this model that is making such a difference in the lives of domestic violence victims." We sincerely expect that the Windham County Integrated Domestic Violence Docket will serve as a positive example so that the IDVD can be instituted throughout Vermont.