After-Hours Court Provides Emergency Protection to Abused
PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Women, children, the elderly and even gay men are getting fast protection from domestic violence by going to a new after-hours Municipal Court session just for them.
This month, a courtroom opened in City Hall dedicated to serving the approximately 5,000 people a year who seek emergency orders after normal business hours. Just in time, say officials, to handle the usual Christmas holiday increase that they fear could be made worse by the recession.
Victims used to have to go to police headquarters, sometimes spending up to three hours waiting in the middle of the night. In City Hall’s Courtroom 116, they get help in 30 minutes.
The idea came from recommendations made by a task force convened by Judge Lisa Richette that included representatives of police, the courts, the office of the district attorney, and victims. The state provided $165,000.
″By putting it in City Hall, from a practical view, people can get there more easily and the environment in the dedicated courtroom is a lot better,″ said Mimi Rose of the special assault unit of the District Attorney’s Office.
Previously, a bail commissioner handled domestic abuse orders.
The old after-hours procedure, implemented in 1990, often stretched to three hours as the commissioners took care of bail hearings, criminal arraignments, and bench warrants in criminal cases. Those who sought help wound up waiting outside when the building’s public lobby was full.
In the first quarter of this year alone, 1,474 people went to police headquarters for court protection.
Now, the cases are heard in a single room by masters trained in domestic abuse issues and procedures have been trimmed to a half-hour session, according to Joan Mintz Ulmer, spokeswoman for Women Against Abuse.
So much better, Rose said, than a trip to headquarters, known as the ″Roundhouse″ as much for the clientele in handcuffs as the architecture. There, the victims are only an ″interlude″ between criminal cases, she said.
″It’s a place for the women,″ she said of Courtroom 116.
Under the plan, the 100 or so domestic abuse victims who use the emergency system each week are protected by certified emergency orders until their petitions are reviewed in Family Court at a hearing within 10 days.
Since 1989, Women Against Abuse has helped victims wade through a 15-page form and answer questions, and for the poorest, get legal assistance for the hearing.
Women Against Abuse volunteers are in Courtroom 116 from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. The court itself remains in session to 8:30 a.m.
Ulmer said the program was the only one in the state and she knew of no others like it in the country.
″It’s an important message to women that we don’t want the system to be so intimidating that they’ll be overwhelmed,″ said spokeswoman Joan Mintz Ulmer.
″It’s the middle of night, they’ve just been beaten, they could have injuries, they have their children with them, they are terrified, are truly in crisis. It was hard to go through a system that felt so menacing,″ she said.
About 97 percent of those seeking protection orders are women, Ulmer said. Most of the men seeking protection were not abused by their spouse, but were elderly men abused by their adult children or gay men abused by other men, she said.
The court is busiest on weekends when more people are at home, with as many as 75 cases a night, Ulmer said.
The court also sees more cases during the Christmas holidays, when domestic violence increases in part because of drinking and the stress of unmet expectations. But the number of people seeking protection-from-abuse orders doesn’t jump until the following week, Ulmer said.
″They may not necessarily seek help during the holidays, but when they do, the incidents they report to the court happened then,″ she said.
Ulmer said officials with Women Against Abuse were uncertain how the upcoming holidays and the recession would combine to affect the number of people trying to get away from the source of the violence against them.
″It’s so hard for a battered woman to leave the home″ because she may have no one to turn to for economic help, Ulmer said.