More than 3,500 people go into Pinellas courtrooms to allege abuse by a spouse, domestic partner or date every year.
Sometimes in these cases accused abusers might have to complete mental health or substance abuse evaluations or surrender firearms.
To ensure these court orders are met, a Civil Domestic Violence Court starts next month with the help of a nearly $300,000 grant.
The special court comes after a year of planning and preparation that started shortly after the Office on Violence Against Women approved the $299,310 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Court Training and Improvement Fund.
The grant helps put some resources in place in a consistent and effective way that have been missing, said Michelle Ardabily, chief deputy court administrator. It adds a full time and part time case manager to monitor and track compliance hearings.
“We were attempting before the grant to do some follow up,” Ardabily said. “But because we didn’t have a compliance system in place, by the time we got around, the injunction had expired.”
Such cases, referred to as "Return Hearings," offer the chance for petitioners to seek final injunctions for protection against domestic violence.
The special dockets, which include cases of sexual and dating violence, are heard on Wednesdays at the courthouse in St. Petersburg and Thursdays in Clearwater. The eight circuit judges who serve in the Family Law Division will handle the domestic violence court case calendar on a rotating basis.
Ardabily said the special court will have teeth.
“We are going to follow this,” Ardabily said. “It could lead to indirect criminal contempt.” Which could could lead to jail time.
For instance, in some domestic violence cases, an alleged abuser might have to surrender their firearms. These follow up meetings would ensure that happens. Respondents will now have to return to court to show that they are complying with the conditions.
“We’re serious about these cases,” Ardabily said. “We are hoping that when people know we are serious about following through on these things they will get them done.”
Streamlining the System
A three-year grant is helping streamline part of the Pinellas judicial system.
It paid for the first year of planning and two years of funding the special domestic violence court. After that, Ardabily said the court system hopes to have put other funding in place to continue the compliance component the way it is structured.
It comes on the heels of the Pinellas County Collaboration to Prevent Domestic Violence task force, which was set up to review and recommend changes in procedures and protocols for handling domestic violence cases a year ago. Representatives from court-related agencies, local legal aid groups, the Haven of RCS, CASA, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies, domestic violence treatment providers and the local community served on the task force.
The grant pays for a magistrate who will be at the courthouse for the return hearings to deal with issues that relate to children affected by the alleged abuse.
In order to make sure the grant-funded resources deal with cases involving family abuse and sexual and dating violence, the court has set up separate calendars at the Pinellas Criminal Justice Center to deal with repeat, non-intimate domestic violence cases and cases with allegations of stalking.
In other cases, parties no longer will have to return to court to argue matters of child custody or visitation. They will be sent from the return hearing to another before the magistrate to work through these issues.
Ardabily said moving some of the caseload to other courts will help.
"This gives more time to cases between intimate partners and (case managers) are able to give more time to each case," Ardabily said.
An element of the program includes a contract between the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners and CASA, Community Action Stops Abuse, the St. Petersburg group that works to help victims of domestic violence.
The agency places victim advocates in the offices of the Pinellas Clerk of Court to support abuse victims when they seek protection orders. The advocates help the victims understand the different types of abuse, fill out necessary paperwork, answer questions and direct them to needed services or shelters.
*This article is changed to reflect the spelling of Michele Ardabily's name at 2:44 p.m. Dec. 19, 2012.
- Want the news delivered to your email box every morning? Subscribe to the East Lake Patch newsletter. It's free and we don't give out your email address. Sign up here.