The Circuit Court of Cook County Committee on Domestic Violence Court makes recommendations for expanded service for domestic violence victims. The committee, which was re-established by Chief Judge Evans last October and is chaired by Domestic Relations Division Presiding Judge Grace G. Dickler, made recommendations for improved access to the courts.
Our Director of Children and Families Practice Group, Benna Crawford, was a crucial advocate for getting the committee reformed. During the pandemic, Crawford and her team met regularly with domestic violence and sexual assault advocates and attorneys across Cook County to discuss the challenges survivors were facing accessing the courts.
Crawford regularly escalated these issues to the Office of the Chief Judge. Survivors were being turned away from the courthouse; not permitted to file their petitions; forced to travel to the courthouse where there was no childcare at the height of the pandemic because remote access was only available to those with the assistance of an advocate or attorney. Petitions for orders of protection were being rejected for filing because they were incomplete; it was challenging for unrepresented survivors and seasoned attorneys alike to get any information about current court procedures.
Along with others in the DV community, Crawford drafted a series of proposals for how to address these issues. Ultimately, Chief Judge Evans reformed the Domestic Violence Committee and appointed Crawford as one of its members.
As a legal service provider for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, Crawford, and Legal Aid Chicago bring a unique outlook to the committee. Crawford and her team represent survivors in all 7 Cook County courthouses where civil protective orders are heard. Her team of attorneys and paralegals work daily with survivors of domestic and sexual violence seeking the court’s protection. They know the challenges in accessing the court and have constructive suggestions on how to improve that access.
In addition, in partnership with Dentons, Legal Aid Chicago runs an Order of Protection Appeals Project. Through that project, attorneys receive a high volume of referrals from litigants who sought and were denied protective orders. In many of these cases, survivors face substantial challenges when they don’t have the assistance they need to fill out their initial petitions or appear in front of judges who could benefit from additional domestic violence training. The Committee’s recommendations seek to address these challenges by dramatically increasing the assistance unrepresented litigants receive. Judge Rice’s commitment to ongoing domestic violence training for the judges in her division is also laudable.
Detailed recommendations of the committee:
To alleviate the impact of the increased volume of domestic violence cases, the committee recommends adding up to two additional civil courtrooms and an entirely remote emergency call. The committee also wants to transfer non-domestic stalking no contact cases (SNCOs) to the Municipal Division, which will free up civil courtroom calls, and initiate mediation when appropriate for these types of cases.
To accommodate litigant needs, the committee also recommends:
- Extending regular court hours in one to two courtrooms two days per week
- Establishing procedures for Domestic Relations Division cases to be heard remotely at the 555 W. Harrison St. courthouse
- Establishing a mental health diversion call to handle cases where mental health service referrals and monitoring are appropriate.
The committee recommends an overhaul of the Circuit Court website to facilitate improved communication with litigants and stakeholders. This would include posting routine data reports of key domestic violence case statistics. The committee recommends the creation of a listserv for stakeholder updates, changes in procedures, and regular stakeholder meetings to facilitate information sharing and problem-solving of ongoing operational issues
The committee recommends funding a buildout of Illinois Legal Aid Online’s (ILAO) guided interview platform for integration with the Clerk’s Odyssey system for seamless remote filing of petitions.
- Hiring personnel to assist litigants in navigating courthouse procedures
- Increasing access to child-related remedies including the creation of an additional Child Relief Expediter, a mediator who handles cases with child custody and support issues
- Making an ongoing commitment to same-day civil services and reducing turnaround times for suburban and criminal cases.
The committee also recommends the use of advocate partnerships, both for after-hours assistance and for daytime assistance for disabled and elderly petitioners.
The recommendations are intended to both help protect the safety of victims of domestic violence and the rights of those accused. The goal is to have services available to domestic violence victims 24/7 if the results of the pilot program demonstrate services are warranted. However, due to the shortage of judges which will not be alleviated until January of next year, and the current lack of data as to actual need, the Committee deemed that implementation of a pilot program was necessary and should start in September.
Under the pilot program, petitioners seeking Emergency Orders of Protection will complete online forms developed in partnership with ILAO. After-hour access will be available through filing a petition at a dedicated email address. Information will be posted on the ILAO launch page, advising petitioners requesting these orders outside of those stated hours to apply by going to the courthouse during regular business hours or by accessing the after-hours email address for remote (Zoom) hearings during the established hours.
“It can be challenging for survivors, especially those living in poverty or with small children, to access the courthouse between 8:30 – 4:00 p.m. In addition, the need for legal protection can happen at any time of day. The emergency protections, including stay away and exclusive possession of the home, can be lifesaving and should be available when an emergency need arises. Increasing the hours survivors can access the court, coupled with providing the court with the resources needed to operate at a high level is critical. The recommendations of the Committee, some of which have already been implemented under Judge Rice’s leadership, are great first steps. I am excited to see that the court devote the resources that are necessary to bring all of the Committee’s recommendations into fruition,” said Crawford.
To read Judge Evan’s press release, click here.
Read the full report here: DV Committee Final Report