Written by Madoline Markham
To tell the story of Birmingham’s domestic violence court is to tell many other stories too. It’s far from a simple narrative. Let’s start with one. A domestic violence victim typically reports violence at least seven times before leaving the perpetrator. That’s what Judge Katrina Ross has found.
In any given week, Ross dismisses around 20 domestic violence cases. Sometimes after the first incident a couple will get back together. Often the victims won’t testify, or she (or he) can’t even be located. “Most of the cases that need to be tried are not tried,” Ross says. “It’s a hard court.” All too often, Ross later hears about a homicide springing from cases that were dismissed.
As Ross and her predecessor, Judge Laura Petro, have learned, an understanding of the people who enter the court is vital. Petro has come to better know the experience of victims through both her judgeship and work with the YWCA, which provides court advocates and other domestic violence services. “In a lot of cases, the victim was very isolated by her friends and family. She really had nobody,” Petro recalls. “They are not here because the victim wants the offender in jail. They want it to stop. They want a life with no more violence in their home. The women want it, their children want it.”
In most cases, a woman is the victim, but in some it’s a man. In others a mother or brother might be the offender. “There is a lot of education that needs to go on,” Petro says. “It’s not about taking someone out of the home, it’s about making it safer. The courts can’t advocate for either side, we just ensure fair justice.” During Petro’s year with a full-time domestic violence docket, 2006—one that was taxing and frustrating despite her passion for the issue—she noted a particular role of her court. “Studies had shown that the fear of what a judge could do could motivate (perpetrators) more than other things, so we were trying to use that and put it to good use,” Petro says. “If we helped one family, we did good, and we helped more than one.”
During her tenure presiding over the court since 2007, Ross has come to better understand victims. “We need to be more compassionate to what the victim is experiencing,” she says. “Sometimes she just needs to share her stories. Often they run out of money or resources or feel threatened. We don’t know why people stay, so we need to make sure the victim does not feel ‘less than.’ She has already been made to feel ‘less than’ by the perpetrator.” Although it isn’t always clear how to put an end to domestic violence, Ross notes the importance of trying. “This is a very serious issue,” Ross says. “If you don’t have healthy families, it affects the community at large. For some reason we don’t think it’s as serious as it is.”
Let’s go back to the court itself. When a victim doesn’t show up to testify, it’s a game changer. Without her testimony, the case by law must be dismissed when it comes to trial. At that point, it becomes hard to find a way to prosecute, so the district attorney’s office is left to rely on things like an utterance the police heard or the state of the home.
“The role of the court is to find whether a crime is committed and also to keep the community safe by determining when a
person is safe to release,” Ross says.
But the court’s role ends there. If they don’t have a case, they can’t act.
Services for the perpetrator are also key to the future of these cases. From 2006 to around 2009, a Jefferson County group called TASC (Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime) provided a full-time case manager, Roger Thorne, and staff to monitor the perpetrators while they were on bond and make sure they had no contact with the victim. Without this system, those who commit misdemeanors are not monitored. Post-conviction, it was like they had a probation officer. “I think it showed the victim, ‘Hey, we are just here to stop the violence,’” Petro says. TASC could also help the perpetrator find a job or deal with drug issues. “(These issues) might not be the root problem, but they accelerate the issues of domestic violence, which is basically about power and control,” Ross says. When Ross attended national conventions, people were impressed to learn about the role of TASC. To Ross, it “kept everything glued together” in their relationship with the defendant.
During the first few years of the domestic violence court (which became its own entity in 2006), it also pulled together community resources as a remediation court. The DA’s office explained the purpose of the court to law enforcement officers and paramedics, and they worked with organizations like Alabama Abuse, Gateway, and Freedom from Violence that provide classes offenders are often required to attend after their conviction. Counseling agencies also agreed to work with families the court saw on a sliding scale.
Around 2009 as the economy was sinking, funding for both the courts and for TASC began to dry up. Today, even though other groups offer counseling, they don’t act as a case manager who can help advise the judge on the situation. Now all Ross knows is their class attendance record, and only about a third of her docket is the domestic violence cases. Without outside services, it’s harder for the court to both work with and
understand victims and perpetrators. But now to assist in this arena, a new One Place Metro Alabama Family Justice Center is acting as a one-stop shop to connect victims with various services instead of travelling to find them. The program, a collaboration between the district attorney’s office, Birmingham Police Department, YWCA, and the Crisis Center, opened in May. It provides access to counseling, victim services, the criminal justice process, and advocacy help, as well as offers a 24-hour confidential hotline (205-322-4878).
Still, the stats remain. Alabama saw 2,872 domestic violence aggravated assaults and 32,587 domestic violence simple assaults in 2013 alone, and a firearm was used in half of Alabama domestic violence homicides, according to the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center. But hope remains. “We can throw all of our resources at eradicating it, and I hope and pray it will,” Petro says. •