Program Offers Remote Court Access To Domestic Violence Victims Using Pandemic-Inspired Technology
The West Virginia Supreme Court Appeals kicked off a pilot project in Cabell County, giving victims of domestic violence remote access to file petitions to the magistrate clerk and remotely attend family court hearings.
In effect, victims will no longer have to face their abusers.
Before the option of remote access, the Magistrate Court used to be the only place someone could go to petition for a personal safety order in cases of domestic violence. Having just a singular location as the only access for victims made them vulnerable for stalkers and abusers. It greatly limited the access victims of domestic violence had to the process of getting protection.
“You need to keep people separated. When you're truly afraid of someone or fear for your safety, it's not the ideal situation,” said Cabell County Family Court Judge Patricia Keller.
“A lot of times, they're afraid to leave after we've had a hearing in court because somebody could be waiting for them outside,” she said. “This helps us a lot by keeping people separated. But we still provide them the same mechanism to have a face to face hearing, because they're seeing each other. They're sharing evidence with each other, but they're doing it in a safe way.”
The Cabell County Family Court is limited in size, with only one way of entering and exiting. There’s one elevator and one small waiting room.
“If there was only one gas station in Cabell County, and you needed gas, well, everybody would know, go to that one station. Well, there are real risk and safety concerns for the abused and concern about the abuser knowing that the victim is going to go to the courthouse,” said West Virginia’s Chief Justice Even Jenkins, “Here in Cabell County, we don't have a garage. Our closest garage is a block away or you're parking on the streets. We don't have secure parking on the courthouse grounds. So this is a really important step.”
Now through advocacy centers, such as CONTACT Rape Crisis Center and Branches Domestic Violence Center, victims can petition for personal safety orders and attend the subsequent hearings in family court. Advocates at the centers can assist victims through the filing process, and facilitate communication between the victim and the Magistrate Court.
“Having people feel comfortable, being able to present their story to the court and to the judge, makes it advantageous for all,” said Jason Spears, Cabell County Family Court judge. According to Spears, giving the option of remote access to hearings provides both parties in a domestic case a safe environment.
A large portion of this new option is made possible with the remote equipment used during the pandemic when the West Virginia Court system began operating remotely. Jenkins noted that “the taxpayers of West Virginia have invested significant sums of money in every courthouse in every county to keep the judicial system up and running.”
Jenkins said there was always a need to make the process more accessible, and the pandemic provided the courts with the tools.
Jenkins said that other counties such as Kanawha, Ohio, and Berkeley, are only one or two steps away from having their own remote options.
For more information on the available advocacy centers, you can visit the website for CONTACT rape crisis center at https://www.contacthuntington.com/about-us.html, or you can visit the website for Branches Domestic Violence Shelter at https://www.branchesdvs.org/.